The discussion on Thursday by the school board of the DJUSD Career Technical Education program (CTE) made me realize that, instead of talking about CTE, the school district might want to re-think how they teach students about how to plan for a career.
I end up sitting down with dozens of college-aged students each year, many of them in their third and fourth year of college. One of the big questions I ask them is their academic and career plans. At 21 or 22 years of age, most students do not have a concrete sense of what they want to do with their career.
In today’s world, I think that’s okay. In fact, I urge them to explore their options and keep as many options open as possible. Many of my interns are thinking about law school – the only problem is many have no idea what type of law they are interested in, they have no idea what it means to be a lawyer, or what options are open to them.
Many of them stumble onto the Vanguard Court Watch Internship as a way to learn about the courts and what lawyers do. It’s a valuable experience – and maybe that is something that needs to be more broadly applied and at a younger age.
The discussion Thursday was eye-opening. A young lady spoke up, a high school junior, and said: “High school isn’t helping me pick a career either.”
She added, “I’m just focused on my studies. I don’t know what I want to do. It’s pretty scary.”
I ended up talking to her afterwards and re-assured her that it was normal not to know what she wanted to do at 16 or 17 years old. She wants to go to college, but isn’t sure of after that.
The key thing is she was really stressed about it. She believes her peers have it all figured out – I’m sure they don’t.
I reassured her that this was normal, that I work with students older than her going through the same thing, except they are in college.
From what Associate Superintendent Rody Boonchouy said on Thursday, there is nothing unusual about what this young lady is going through.
He noted that there is also a culture of competition that goes along with this and “we see this is as one of the features that is increasing the level of stress and anxiety that we’re seeing in our students in this community.
“This is becoming more apparent in we’re hearing this directly from our students… and we’re hearing it consistently,” he added.
He said, they believe “we can better prepare students for their career.”
The amount of stress seems to be an area that not only the district should pay more attention to, it’s one area that they should be able to fix. They can do that by having a better guidance system to let students know what their options are and that they don’t have to have a career figured out at the age of 17 or even 22 – or perhaps even 35.
However, the district is not doing well here. Students do not believe they are well served or instructed on career paths.
Only 22 percent of students in response to a survey stated, “My school has helped me figure out which careers match my interests/abilities.” Another 21 percent responded, “My school has helped me understand the steps I need to take to have the career I want.”
Moreover, while a huge percentage of students go to some sort of college – 80 percent – only 54 percent of them complete it. That means that 46 percent are going into a career field without a college education.
Board Member Alan Fernandes worried that they weren’t preparing the bulk of their students for that alternative. And he’s right.
“So barely half finish college,” he stated.
He called the student survey data, “The biggest black eye in my view.” He stated, “Eighty percent of our students basically say, we’re no help.
“In the minds of the students, we’re failing even helping them identify what careers might be of interest,” he said. “The career center is covered with college banners. Why is the word college before career? To me it’s backwards.”
He said that “we don’t really help them with careers, we just teach them to fill out financial aid applications and talk about college.” He said that college is required for some careers, “but when we put college in front of careers, it’s really the same old, same old.”
He added, “It’s sort of a joke saying that we’re a college prep institution and yet almost half don’t even attain a college degree. That’s not working.”
Cindy Pickett said she agreed with Mr. Fernandes, but she added, “It’s not uncommon for college juniors to not know what career path they will embark on. They intentionally say I know I’m going to go to college but I’m going to keep my eyes open until I get closer to graduation from college.”
She pointed out that for college-bound students, “High school hasn’t helped them look for a career, because they’re not looking to decide on a career at this stage.
“It’s the students that really want a career that we have to make sure that we’re serving,” she said.
It seems to me there are several problems here that are intertwined. The first problem here that the CTE hopes to address is how to better prepare students who are not going to get a college degree to go on to a career.
The other problem is helping those students who are going to get a college degree reduce their anxiety and figure out a career path.
Personally, given the frequency these days that people change not only their jobs but their career paths, I think it is important to teach students about the real world and the fact that they don’t have to be locked into a career path when they are 17 or even 22.
In fact, one of the things I advise students who talk to me is to slow down. Their careers will always be there, their youth and opportunities to explore the world and learn new things might not. I’m a big believer in travel and internships and I think the school district would be well advised to find ways to teach students about ways to access experience and career paths rather than focusing on technical skills that could be obsolete in a year.
—David M .Greenwald reporting