“In Canada, the statistics show that 50% of kids who go to post-secondary will either never finish or never work in the field that they’ve studied in. So is there a connection between how we make kids choose careers and that statistic? I think there is.”
A couple of weeks ago, I had a great interview with a seasoned youth worker I’ll call “Jack.” The best thing about this guy is that he’s educated up to his eyeballs now, but barely passed high school as a youth. “I had a 52% average,” he told me, “There is probably very little you could have done to motivate me to do anything, other than to play basketball, and that was the only thing that kept me in school really.” Jack puttered around at different jobs after high school, and finally got around to university eight years later, when he was good and ready.
Jack has a unique combination of education, and the “earthier” life experience that tends to come for those who do not spend their early adulthood in the cloistered halls of a university. This makes him especially empathetic when it comes to the youth that most people write off. He gets that high school, with its narrow and seemingly unmovable focus on university-stream academics, tends to alienate kids who aren’t headed in that direction. Schools, says Jack, “try to fit kids into systems instead of making systems that fit kids.”
And he’s right. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my brief investigations into youth career transitions it is that when it comes to this important phase of kids’ lives, our present secondary school system is broken. It will require the collective and cooperative efforts of education systems, government and industry to make any changes that aren’t just tinkering around the edges of what we’ve got now.
So Jack and I were also talking about a great example of the lame state of affairs we can “career planning” in high school, which as Jack pointed out, is premature for many kids who, fresh out of junior high, still can’t find their asses with both hands and a flashlight, let alone figure out what they’re going to be when they grow up. But anyway. We’re talking about Career Cruising, a spiffy online career information and planning resource that many Alberta students encounter in Grade 10. Jack says, “Yeah they do this online, and they answer all these questions, and the computer spits out a list of careers it thinks the kid would be good at based at how he answers on that particular day.”
Jack goes on to point out that the kid could be bored, confused, or “cruising” on no sleep the night before, for all the computer or anyone else knows. Working as a guidance counsellor, Jack witnessed kids going through this online exercise: “I watched them cross off occupations and I’d say ‘Well, why’d you cross those off?’ And they’d say, ‘Well I don’t know what it is.’” Or they think it’s a career for nerds, or that it doesn’t look too interesting on TV, or that it’s only for girls/boys.
And this, Jack points out, becomes the basis for planning a student’s high school courses and post-secondary aspirations. In Grade 10. Often without any one-on-one follow-up with a knowledgeable counsellor. With a kid who’s already crossed off any options he couldn’t pronounce. So unless a young person has family members who can steer her the right way, she’ll remain locked into two of the Great Lies we tell kids: that a “career” is the same as an occupation (it’s not), and that you should pick an occupational goal when you’re 15 years old and pick it right, or you’re hooped.
It’s tough to make a case for any budget priority when schools are already feeling strapped, and are already begging and pleading for the resources they need just to look after kids’ needs in the classroom. Because these latter concerns are so immediate, career counselling always winds up being an under-funded – or even unfunded – “extra”. This is, however, an illusory source of savings, because in the long run it perpetuates an ineffective system that doesn’t meet the needs of kids or employers. High schools need dedicated, full-time career counsellors and work experience coordinators. This might not fix our broken school-to-work transition system for kids, but it would be a great start toward something better.
References and Notes
 I mentioned this in an earlier post, along with an excellent reference on this topic: Bell, D. & Bezanson, L., (2006). Career Development Services for Canadian Youth: Access Adequacy and Accountability. Pathways to the Labour Market, Series, 1. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Policy Research Network