Guest Author Jenna Smith | September 2013

Preparing Students for Changing Careers

When’s the last time you asked your students what they wanted to be when they grew up? When they said “teacher” or “nurse” or “veterinarian,” did you ask them what they wanted to be after that? The fact is that students in Generation Y and Generation Z – that is, the students currently graduating college and the students currently in elementary and secondary school – will have, on average, five different careers before retirement.

Not five different jobs – five different careers. This means your budding fifth-grader who wants to be a teacher may spend a few years working for Teach for America, then take a stint in the communications department of an educational non-profit, then transfer to educational administration, then downshift to a freelance consultant career while raising a family, then return to the workforce as a bank manager, then close out a career by teaching business classes at the local community college.

However, we don’t train students to think this way. Instead, we urge them to narrow their interests in preparation for college and the all-important major, steering one group of students towards computer programming and another group towards AP English, giving them the false assumption that they need to prepare for a single career for the rest of their lives.

This, of course, causes considerable stress, both during the quarter-life crisis, when many students are unable to find work in their fields, as well as the mid-life crisis that follows a few decades later. Schools train students to believe that they will have one job when they grow up, meaning that if they can’t get hired in that job or if their industry changes, they feel like they have failed.

We need to change the way we educate students, and teach them to prepare to transition between multiple careers. Al Alt, CFO of the Sweetwater Union High School District in California, says companies are in need of employees who can quickly adapt to new jobs and new job roles. As educators, particularly as students prepare for high school and college, we need to ensure our classrooms prepare students for this type of working world.

The Importance of Writing

Many of the jobs our current students will fill haven’t been invented yet. However, regardless of whether our students are working in space tourism or sustainable farming, they’ll still need to master one key skill: writing.

Teachers often mistakenly assume that some students “just aren’t writers,” forgetting that nearly every career now comes with a substantial writing component. Workers send hundreds of emails every day, in addition to crafting personal websites, social media profiles and other public statements of their skills and talents. It is imperative that every student graduate high school with an understanding of writing not only as a craft but also as an art; the ability to use words to communicate efficiently, precisely and elegantly. No matter which five careers an individual student has after graduation, writing will be an important component of each job.

Preparing Critical Thinkers

The current debate over whether we should train students for specific jobs vs. “teach them how to think” becomes even more specious when you consider the “five different careers” argument. It’s all well and good to train students for a specific career in finance, medicine, or engineering, but it is equally important to teach students how to think critically and reason logically. After all: college gets you your first job. Your ability to handle complex situations and apply critical thinking gets you every job after that.

As educators, we’ve known the importance of critical thought and the liberal curriculum for years. Luckily, the rest of the world is starting to catch up to us. Expect more discussion about long-range critical thinking education over career-based education in the next few years, as more stakeholders begin to realize that we are no longer preparing students for a single, lifelong job.

Teaching Adaptability

Students in Generation Y and Generation Z also need to learn how to adapt, and transition seamlessly from career to career without taking significant emotional hits. These students have already seen how the Great Recession devastated parents and relatives, and how unexpected career shifts led to depression, loss of self-worth and other negative experiences. Boomers were not prepared to adapt to new careers, but we must work to ensure current generations have both the mental and emotional skills to pick up new careers and new identities as necessary.

Teaching students how to adapt to different roles in the classroom prepares them to adapt to different roles later in life. So does honest conversation about the realities of the working world and the different roles they will need to play as adults. Asking students in social studies or English classes to interview community members about their various careers, a la Studs Terkel, helps them understand that nearly everyone holds many identities throughout life and that a life’s work isn’t a straight line through a single career, but rather a series of arcs through many vocations. As educators, that is one of the most important lessons we can provide.

About the Author

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