Teens to Tenure: Career Planning Challenges in the Northwest
by Nate Dorr - email@example.com
Career planning tools are more abundant than ever in today’s information age. No longer do students need to sharpen No. 2 pencils and fill in bubbles to figure out their career paths. Web-based tools now allow job seekers to access detailed occupational recommendations based on tests for interests, skills, and abilities. So with all this technology, are students actually using these new tools or labor market information to make wise career decisions?
In the 1999 National Survey of Working Americans, 69 percent of respondents said they would seek more career planning information before choosing a career if they had to start all over again Interestingly, social networks, not Internet resources, were the most common source for career information. In fact, 39 percent of respondents turned to friends, family, and neighbors compared to 13 percent who used Internet sites for career information. These data, although more than a decade old, support information shared informally by high school students in northwest Minnesota. Students rely mostly on people they know and are less likely to use planning tools online for career information.
School Counselor Crunch
Career counseling for high school students is severely limited across the state. The American School Counselor Association recommends a student-to-counselor ratio of 250-to-1, yet the national average is 460-to-1. Minnesota ranks next to last, at 49th of the 50 states, with a ratio of 777-to-1. High school guidance counselors interviewed in the northwest region simply lack adequate time with students to plan beyond high school class scheduling or crisis counseling. Although many counselors in the region use online tools like iSeek, Naviance, and the Minnesota Career Information System with students, career counseling is not their primary role. Minnesota state licensure requirements for school counselors 2] coupled with everyday challenges split counselors’ time with students. As an added challenge, counselors and non-core teaching positions are often the first cut when school budgets are short.
“The school board and administration are aware there needs to be more counselors; however, due to limited funding from the state, school counseling is one of the first areas to be cut. Six years ago [our district] had three licensed school counselors, one for grades K-6, one for grades 7-9, and one for grades 10-12. Five years ago that was cut to two, one for K-8, and one for 9-12. Three years ago it was cut to one K-12.” – Area School Counselor with 950+ K-12 students
“As a counselor who does many different things throughout the day, with career counseling being one of those things, you make time for it but don’t have enough time to do as well as you could.” – Area School Counselor
Career counseling shortages in the K-12 schools force students and parents to discover the resources and plan themselves. The best resources for do-it-yourself planning are often found online. The problem is that not all parents or young adults know where to go. Many popular national sources may offer generic advice on hot jobs or focus primarily on major metro areas. The national O*NET site, however, is a key source for national and local planning tools. Local sources, like iSeek or the Minnesota Career Information System, help focus on the interests and demand for careers. Video clips, labor market information, and links to training opportunities strengthen these sources. The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) Occupations in Demand Web site remains one of the easiest-to-use career planning tools. Users can quickly find information on occupations, wages, projections, and college programs all on one page. This tool uses up-to-date labor market information for regions throughout the state. Following accurate local data is the best way to identify opportunities in the local area, while winnowing down the list to match student career interests.
The Game of Life
In the board game “LIFE,” players on their first turn must decide to attend college or begin working. Either choice can lead to a good career with a car load of little plastic children and the option of retiring in a mansion or old-folks home. Real life is also a game of chance in many respects. People in the real world certainly have more freedom and personal control over their career paths than in the game. However, choosing an incompatible career path can cost the job seeker both time and money. Limiting the amount of trial and error throughout an individual career path is important.
Data from the Minnesota Office of Higher Education and the National Center for Education Statistics show degree-completion trends for all Minnesota colleges and universities in Figure 1. Over the past decade humanities, business and management, and social and behavioral sciences have led the growth in degree completions. Data from DEED’s report on occupations in demand and employment projections all point to health care careers, science-technology-engineering-math-based occupations, and management jobs as having the most growth potential. The low number of health care and of computer science and engineering degree completions in the state concerns workforce developers, since those are nearly sure bets for job growth. On the other hand, the growth in business and management completions may position those graduates for good paying jobs as baby boomers retire.
Choosing a career path without college or specialized training limits career options in the future, but that’s not the whole picture. Lower wages, decreased job stability, and lack of benefits often accompany low-skill jobs in the region. However, many good paying jobs still exist for young adults entering the workforce for the first time. Manufacturing, construction, and health care jobs can all pay well without a college education as long as they stay in demand. The majority of job vacancies (61 percent) in Minnesota do not require any post-secondary certification. 3] So skipping college and earning money seems like a great option for high school graduates entering the workplace. But realistically, failure to seek specialized training will eventually hinder their ability to adapt to the rapidly changing global economy.
Better Late Than Never
Poor career planning for teenagers ripples through their work lives. The ability to redefine a career, years out of high school, however, is challenging but not impossible. Job counselors throughout the region help job seekers find meaningful employment every day. An estimated 330 educational and vocational school counselors operate in the northwest region in addition to 80 employment, recruitment, and placement specialists Most of these counselors are housed in the region’s WorkForce Centers, colleges and universities, and other social service organizations. These workers can quickly navigate the WorkForce Center system and regional labor market. They offer services from basic job searches to long-term career planning and development. At the same time, job seekers must take the initiative to make their career plans a reality.
Aside from the powerful Web-based career planning tools, here are some activities that help students define their career paths. Successful programs often combine labor market information, field trips, career fairs, job shadowing, hands-on projects, and connections to higher education. Other successful programs integrate local businesses into the mix.
Camp Ripley Annual Career Fair: The Healthy Communities Collaborative of Morrison County holds an annual career fair at Camp Ripley. The event brings in more than 375 high school 10th graders from the area to meet with 80 presenters and working professionals. This is a great turnout for one of the most rural counties in the northwest region of the state. Topics range from general presentations on jobs of the future, to specific career options like chiropractic care. Other career fairs in the region, like the Brainerd Career Exploration Day, can draw up to 2,000 students.
Job Shadowing and Workplace Field Trips: Many businesses and school counselors in the region schedule field trips and tours outside the classroom. Bringing students to the workplace gives them a visual reference and personal connection to potential employers in their hometowns. The hands-on experience of touring a business and asking questions remains with them throughout their adult years.
Youth Build: This program combines hands-on experiences with academic and life skills training. Focused on high school dropouts from 16 to 24 years old, the program enables participants to earn wages while building or rehabilitating low-income housing and public buildings. They must also actively pursue their high school diploma or GED. Rural Minnesota CEP, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, Red Lake Band of Ojibwe, Bi-CAP, and other agencies offer this or similar programs throughout the region.
Bridges Academies and Workplace Connection This program was originated by Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce members who realized the need to grow their own workforce. Now with 22 school districts in the region participating, the Bridges Academies connect students to Central Lakes College programming and college credit at no cost to the student in six high-demand areas of study. This partnership amounted to more than $400,000 in college tuition savings in 2008-2009 for area students. The Bridges Workplace Connection also connected 580 students to job shadowing opportunities and has access to 90 professionals for classroom presentations.
Post-Secondary Enrollment Option (PSEO) and Advanced Placement (AP): PSEO and AP courses continue to grow, with 27,966 Minnesota PSEO students in 2007-2008 6] and another 30,392 students taking Advanced Placement exams in 2009 These programs offer a sample of college-level rigor at no cost to students, while building their college transcripts. PSEO and AP courses are available only to high school juniors and seniors.
Career Planning and Exposure
Career planning is definitely a learning process. The career path you choose in your high school years may look completely different from the career you retire from. The 1997 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth found workers between 18 and 22 years old held an average of 4.4 jobs throughout their early working lives Those with more education held a greater number of jobs, while high school dropouts were less likely ever to have held a job. Personal experiences in the workplace can often be more valuable than data or planning documents for many young adults. The best bet is to complete high school with a focus on the future.
Finding that sweet spot where job satisfaction, wages, and stability meet often takes time. Workers might adjust their career plans several times after some trial and error in the job market. Economic conditions, changing business models, globalization, technology advancements, and increasingly competitive job markets will force workers to upgrade their skills. Changing careers or going back to school is not a bad thing, especially if it improves personal satisfaction. Exposing young adults to career opportunities locally is a great way to grow the local workforce. Career plan or not, workers’ skills must remain relevant in the current labor market.
1] U.S. Dept of Education, Common Core of Data, National Institute for Educational Statistics – Public Elementary and Secondary School Student Enrollment and Staff From the Common Core of Data: School Year 2007-2008. Data ratio on school counselors and students. www.schoolcounselor.org/files/Ratios2007-2008.pdf .
2] Minnesota Office of the Revisor of Statutes, www.revisor.mn.gov/rules/?id=8710.6400 .
3] DEED Job Vacancy Survey, second quarter 2009, Minnesota level data, all occupations.
4] DEED Occupational Employment Statistics, second quarter 2009, Northwest Minnesota Planning Area.
 www.bridgesconnection.org .
6] Minnesota Office of Higher Education, PSEO data, www.ohe.state.mn.us/mPg.cfm?pageID=797 .
7] Minnesota Office of Higher Education, Advanced Placement data, www.ohe.state.mn.us/mPg.cfm?pageID=1068 .
8] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997, www.bls.gov/news.release/nlsyth.nr0.htm