“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Values, interests, skills, personality, aptitudes – these are all factors for teens when thinking about their future careers. At the high school level, career guidance involves three participants: parents, counselors and students themselves. But with increasing caseloads of school counselors, parents must play a bigger role.

Who am I? Self-Awareness is the First Step

Psychologist Erik Erikson believed the challenge for adolescents is discovering who they are as individuals. Their intellectual interests and moral reasoning are more developed, and they are ready to think about what they are going to do with their lives. They also want to be independent and self-reliant. It’s important for parents to be interested and encouraging, but also let their teens be in control of their own career explorations.

Role of High School Staff

The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) recommends one counselor for every 250 high school students. In most public and even private high schools, this ratio is not possible. In some larger high schools, over 500 students are assigned to one counselor. To work with all students, counselors often meet with groups of teens.

“If the school counseling program is able to implement a comprehensive program that delivers a curriculum piece to all students, it helps to cut down on the need for individual meetings. Students are given the pertinent information and assistance in beginning the career search process in a classroom setting; then the school counselor is in a position to follow up with individual students as needed,” says Julie Hartline, the 2009 ASCA School Counselor of the Year and Lead Professional School Counselor for Campbell High School in Smyrna, Georgia.

After classroom guidance lessons, Hartline directs her students to the Campbell High School Career Center, the focal point of their counseling program. She adds, “When a student visits the center, they usually start by completing a career interest inventory. From there, they explore colleges or training programs that would help them to get into their fields of interests.”

Hands-On Experience

Many teens start high school wondering what they want to do for a career. By senior year, “I would guess approximately 75% have an idea of what they want to do after high school,” says Hartline. What helps teens become more decisive about their career interests is meeting individuals working in those occupations.

Burlingame High School’s EXPLORE program, in Burlingame, Calif., places approximately 500 students in job shadowing assignments with firefighters, lawyers, nurses, plastic surgeons, FBI agents, civil engineers and more. EXPLORE program coordinator Beth Pascal comments on the program’s success, “I have had students through the years decide on career paths and actually follow them through. I had a student interested in event planning and now she has started her own business in her second year of college.”

Pascal also arranges for entire classes to visit job sites and learn about specific industries. For example, a biology class visited a science institute to learn about different careers in marine biology.

Connecting the Classroom to Careers

“How is this class going to help me later find a job?” This is a common question asked by high school students about their Western Civilization texts. History and literature are important subjects for teens’ intellectual development; however, attention has been given lately to the need for curriculum that will also prepare students for work.

In April 2009 California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell launched the Multiple Pathways Feasibility Project to study the success of academic and technical curriculum so that teens feel better prepared for college or starting a career by the end of high school. He commented in his remarks announcing this project, “Through instruction using a project-based learning approach, multiple pathway programs can prepare students for a wide variety of employment training, or entry into a particular career field.” This project will serve as a model for high school programs, preparing all students for success and closing the achievement gap.

Partnership with Parents

Even with support of counselors and individuals in the community, parents are still the biggest influence on their teens’ work attitudes. Meeting with your teen and the school counselor is a good start to developing a plan to reach early career goals. Hartline adds, “Parents need to be encouraging and supportive throughout the process. The main thing to realize is that society has told students where they will be going to school for 12 years. They need help in determining where to go beyond high school. For many, it is the first major decision they will make in their lives.”

It’s important to keep in mind that career development is a continual process and many individuals will have several different careers across a lifetime. Your teen’s first idea may be unrealistic but serves as an indicator of interests to pursue.

Practical Tips for Parents

  • Find out who your child’s counselor is. How many students does he/she meet with? How much of this time is devoted to career guidance?
  • Ask what assessments or career interest inventories are offered at the school? Make an appointment to meet with the counselor and teen to discuss the results of the assessment.
  • Learn what classes will support your teen in his/her post-secondary interests.
  • Be positive! Some fields may have hefty educational requirements or steep competition for school placement. Familiarize yourself with career clusters or occupations that are grouped according to common skills and learning.
  • Talk to your teen about your own career learning: good decisions, what you would have done differently and continued plans for your own career.
  • Have your teen investigate online career inventories, especially if the high school does not offer career guidance.
  • Encourage exploration of various fields through internships, shadow visits and interviews.
  • Check in with your teen periodically to discuss post-secondary plans and revise accordingly.
  • Start a savings plan early, and explore scholarships and financial aid as needed for college or post-secondary training.