Sunday Commentary: Discussion Shows Need for District to Talk about Career Paths

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

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Dianne C Tobias

    Interesting article and I would attribute the student’s/students’ anxiety to a general increasing stress level for students given the competitiveness of college entrance and Davis schools in general.

    My experience long ago in the 1960s was invaluable and I often have wondered why more districts don’t adopt a program such as what I was able to do. As a HS sophomore in the Bay Area my school offered a Career Exploration experience as a 6 week 9am-12 summer session.

    You had to be interviewed (still remember that first interview all these years later) then you were placed in the ‘career’ of your choice. You needed a second choice and I still remember weighing #1 and 2 on the way to the interview. I chose pharmacy which eventually became my career. I remember friends choosing medicine, nursing, interior design. Some, not all pursued those careers. It was a wonderful taste of what that career might entail, often partnering with a ‘real life’ person in that career to ask questions, etc.

    I am sure there was minor cost involved and local businesses had to be enlisted to provide sites but the time was short, 6 weeks and yet proved so meaningful. I would think with UCD, our Sutter Davis hospital, clinics and local businesses DJUSD could create such an opportunity for our students.  Perhaps we do have this but I have never heard of it.

  2. Don Shor

    My opinion is that going straight from high school to college is the least efficient, least effective way to use higher education in the furtherance of a career. College is expensive. If you don’t yet know why you’re there, perhaps some time in the work force will help you clarify what you do, or don’t, want to do with your life.

    Also, one of those stock photos definitely belongs in the “people sharing hilariously bad stock photos of their jobs” category. “Look! the water column in this tube is almost as high as a four inch pot!”

    1. Bill Marshall

      Don… “it depends”… when you say,

      … going straight from high school to college is the least efficient, least effective way to use higher education in the furtherance of a career.

      That is true for many, less true for many others… “it depends” on the individual… and their circumstances… we should work towards helping young folk working towards ‘what is right for them‘… self discernment, with some guidance…

      I may not have attended college, without the scholarship I earned in HS… not everyone needs to go to UC, or State College, or Community College… but some do, to be successful…

      Beyond degrees, beyond careers, there is life experience and life goals…

      Many benefit from going to college right after HS… many don’t… getting away from parents, making one’s own decisions, dealing with the consequences… all important…

      For me, it was good to go to UC, where I got a good education (which led to a very good career),and I met a young lady who has been my friend/companion/spouse for over 40 years… no regrets, no desire for a “do-over”… early in my career, would have been better off (career-wise) if I had gone to a State University… that was evened out after 3-4 years… but only in the short term… long-term, much of my career growth came from ‘other things’ (not career specific) I learned @ UC… and, I would not have met my lady.

      My results… results of others may vary.

      Others I have know would have benefitted from a ‘time-out’ before college… to explore what was important to them… when they went to college, they would have been more focused…

      So, Don, if you are saying “one size fits all” (going to college) is false, I agree… if you are saying “going to college directly out of HS”, is a bad idea, I strongly disagree…

      “It depends”… on the individual.

      The most important thing, IMHO, to teach kids, is to “learn how to learn”… and to follow their informed “gut”.

    2. David Greenwald

      My thought on this is get your degree as soon as you can.  But I often suggest to students to wait to do grad school or law school a few years and explore their world first.  For the most part, these days there are alternative ways to college to beef up your training and education, but having a degree half value.

      1. Bill Marshall

        but having a degree half value.

        Suspect that was a typo, yet true enough… education/learning has value… the ‘degree’ is only half as important in the real world… you can have a degree, but really learned nothing much.  Of what is important for career or life.

      2. Hiram Jackson

        Having a degree is like having a “ticket to the dance.”

        It has become a screening criteria for many employers in hiring.

        The last Great Recession showed evidence of that.  Those with college degrees more successfully managed to maintain employment for longer throughout.  Those without college were slammed hard and had much higher rates of unemployment, and many still haven’t recovered their pre-recession potential.

        At the same time, college has become less affordable than it was before the recession.  Students are expected to take on more debt.

  3. Don Shor

    When I was in ninth grade we filled out a long survey about our interests. The results were transferred to punch cards and then mailed away somewhere to be fed into a mainframe computer. We waited (“allow six to eight weeks for delivery” is one of those things that our generation will explain with great humor to the next one) and back came a printout telling us what our best career match was, and then we were assigned to write a report about one of the choices.

    I was told I should be a sportwriter (wrong! but writing has been integral to my actual career) or a forest ranger (ok, not bad).

    But the point of this was that even those who found the results amusing and incorrect went through an exercise in evaluating their own interests and values. I’m guessing this type of process could be done rather more quickly now and with more finely-tuned results. No, it doesn’t necessarily lead to career decisions (though being a forest ranger sometimes seems very appealing to me after a career in retail).

    What it does is cause students to understand the career decision matrix. They also need to understand the many ways one can acquire job skills, know that there are different paths toward a career that sometimes zig and zag, and get a clear understanding about setting short- and long-term goals. Those with unconventional mindsets should be encouraged and given full freedom to explore other ways of achieving self-fulfillment along with financial security.

    It can be very challenging to discuss career options in a university town. I know, because that was my situation. My high school counselor didn’t actually know what horticulture was.

    1. Tia Will

      I also took one of these long surveys in my case in high school, sophomore year. The problem was, I didn’t get a tidy couple of suggestions. I got an elaborate message which boiled down to I could do whatever I wanted to do. I got the same result from our high school counselor interview and my mother. Singularly unhelpful. I ended up with a long and winding path to medicine, which ultimately turned out to be a very good fit. Efficient? No. Rewarding? Yes.

      This is why I largely agree with most of Bill and David’s points. If what is valued most highly is efficient job/career training, then I think Don has this right. However, I see life and education, both formal and real-life experience as much, much more than just an efficient career path and am convinced my circuitous route made me a much better doctor.

    2. Richard McCann

      DJUSD currently uses Naviance to test high school students. The problem is that there isn’t enough follow up on interpreting the results. The counseling staff is too slim to meet with 600 seniors much less 1800 students each year, and teachers haven’t been well versed in its use.

  4. Hiram Jackson

    “That means that 46 percent are going into a career field without a college education.”

    I watched the video of that meeting, and I think that statistic is being oversold without exploring what it means.  It was convenient to raise to bring emphasis to his presentation.  Later on in followup discussion afterward, it was explained that it was derived from noting what percentage of a DHS graduate finished their undergraduate degrees within 6 years.

    1. David Greenwald

      Hiram – that’s true, but I think that still provides the same evidence – within 6 years, means that by the age of 24, barely half of DJUSD students have a four year college degree.

    2. Hiram Jackson

      What matters is to answer why they are without a degree in 6 years.  Is it because they’re attending college part-time and working?  Changing majors?  Giving up?

      How many are getting degrees within 7 years?  8 years?  are they taking on scary amounts of debt?

      Also, in their survey, what was their population?  How many didn’t respond?  Why didn’t they respond?

        1. Tia Will

          I agree that Hiram is making an important point. My son has completed his BS at 26 and will now work a year before going back for his master’s. His information would apparently have been counted as not completing college. Another point that this does not address is individual satisfaction with results. From my son’s friends, there seem to be some who are satisfied with their job post BA, some who are unemployed post BA, some who are working to save for the next phase of their education, & some who remain uncertain about what direction they want to take. It seems to me as though, without fully acknowledging it, we have simply moved the time frame of variation up a few years.

      1. Don Shor

        A very common model I’ve observed now is work while going to community college, then transfer to university. The process does take 6 – 7 years. It’s a lot cheaper in the long run than four-year university.

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