with commissioner mulligan
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” It can be a hard question to answer, in fact some of us are still deciding. As a young child, sometimes it’s less daunting.
One of our most fun conversations was with a group of kids at Show-Me Child Care Center in Jefferson City. Several wanted to be doctors, veterinarians, and teachers when they grow up. A few others had high ambitions to become superheroes.
A key component of the Talent for Tomorrow and Best in Midwest efforts is better connecting education and the workforce. Part of that means increasing the supply of graduates in fields that are in high demand. This raises a key question: When and how do kids decide what they want to be when they get older? How do we encourage students to pursue those high-demand fields? How do we develop talent for tomorrow? To try to answer these questions, we sat down with Diane Clayton, a school counselor at Jefferson City High School; David Hough, dean of the College Education at Missouri State University; and Nathan Fleming, a science teacher and Project Lead the Way instructor at West Plains High School.
What the experts say
Career development “starts even earlier than just the high school,” Clayton said, starting as early as elementary school and definitely by the time a student is in middle school. Dr. Hough categorized students into three groups when it comes to making career decisions. Some make the decision exceedingly early, while others develop their interests throughout their education and make a decision, and others take longer, until later in college or after graduation.
So, what does it take to help people decide what they want to be? Clayton says the two key ingredients are time and exposure to a broad range of career options.
Jefferson City Public Schools adopted what is called an ‘academy model,’ which allows students to choose one of several areas, or academies, that they would consider pursuing. Rather than consisting of a specific occupation, these academies are designed to be broad and give students exposure to a multitude of career paths they may be interested in. “[Students] aren’t pigeonholed into one specific area,” Clayton said, but it helps them find some focus. “It’s one thing to know I have an interest in this area, and it’s another thing to know that I have an aptitude,” she said. Knowing a little bit more about yourself as you prepare to graduate from high school can help students make more informed decisions about next steps.
Fleming thinks that teachers have a responsibility in helping students explore different career options. One effective method, Fleming says, is having professionals in the teacher’s subject area come in and speak to the students about what they do. “If teachers did that through all subject areas, then students should be exposed to a lot of different careers before they get out of high school,” Fleming said.
On the flip side, these daunting decisions can be stressful for students. Clayton emphasized the need to remember that high school students aren’t finished products, and the need to focus on providing students with opportunities to explore a variety of career paths to make that decision easier. Ideally, a student’s first year of college should not be the first time they’re being exposed to the countless career paths open to them.
Possible paths forward
Hough believes we should rely on existing research to guide efforts to improve student career outcomes. “The two things that come out [of the research] are mentoring and internships,” Hough said. “Finding someone, the wise person who takes you under his or her wing and teaches you and leads you … is a very powerful tool to help incentivize people to pursue a certain area.”
From Fleming’s perspective, we need to make an effort to set aside time on a regular basis to talk about college and career choices in a concrete, practical way. Fleming talked a lot about what he calls the “hidden rules”, which “is all the little things that we assume you’d have to know in life, but there’s no class that teaches it.” As he developed the concept, he realized that “the students really crave that kind of information because it’s really practical information that could help them.”
A millennial moment
We took a moment to speak with a few current college students who recently had internships with the State of Missouri. Olivia Kessler, who attends Lincoln University and interned this summer with the Information Technology Services Division (ITSD); Levi Anderson, who attends Missouri S&T and interned with ITSD; Matthew King, who attends Missouri State University and interned with ITSD; and Scott (Jeffrey) Farley, who attends State Fair Community College and interned with Facilities Management, Design and Construction (FMDC).
We asked these students about how they decided what to do after high school. Anderson approached college in a very informed, practical way; and he knew what he wanted to do from day one. He worries that students are pressured into going to college, even if they’re not sure what they want to do. “They realize that they don’t like what they’re doing, and they still have all of this debt from [college,] which then digs them a hole for later,” Anderson said.
“I think about [debt] a lot,” Kessler said. “I want to become a doctor, so not only do I have to worry about the tuition from undergraduate school, but I have to worry about the tuition of graduate school … That’s a lot of money I’m putting into it, and I’m not even sure if I’ll get a job afterwards. I’m just hoping I can get a scholarship, an assistantship, something just so I won’t have so much debt to worry about when I’m 40.” For Farley, state supported programs were game-changing. “If it wasn’t for the A+ Scholarship Program, I probably would have just went straight out into the workforce,” he said.
The big picture
The purpose of our conversations was to get a better sense of when and how children make decisions about what they want to do with their lives. In some ways, we got an answer: Students begin to get ideas about their careers as early as elementary school, and many are well into the process as they progress through middle school. Schools have a significant, but challenging role to play in fostering career development and career maturity.
However, the variety of responses we received and the stories we heard hinted at something else: That career development is a messy, non-linear process. People choose careers in interesting and unforeseen ways. Many of the people we spoke to throughout the podcast series were examples of this.
Hearing from a few familiar Missourians
We explored some of those interesting career paths in our discussions with a few familiar Missourians.
Carrie Tergin had no plans to run for mayor of Jefferson City when she enrolled at Missouri State University to pursue a business management degree. “I went into business because I have a family business…, so I always knew business was my interest and my background.” She went on to run the business successfully, crediting her college experience with making her more effective. But during her college career she also had experiences that opened her eyes to public service. While students may or may not get to college knowing what they want to do with their lives, it is also important to keep your eyes open to new experiences and opportunities that could change or enhance your career. “You really get out of [college] what you put into it,” Tergin said. “[College] is the first time you’re really out on your own and you get that opportunity to make things happen.”
When Don Claycomb went to college, he wanted to teach vocational agriculture. And he ultimately achieved that goal after completing a graduate degree at the University of Missouri—Columbia. His story is not one of doing a complete career turnaround, but it is an example of the myriad positions students will have the opportunity to serve in throughout a full career. Claycomb has spent over 50 years in public education, including serving in roles as a high school teacher and college professor; an administrator; and as president of State Technical College of Missouri for 23 years. Last year he was appointed to serve on the State Board of Education by Governor Mike Parson. His biggest advice is to maintain focus to accomplish your career goals.
“When I started college, I thought I wanted to be a medical dietitian, said Mary Russell, who has served as a judge on the Supreme Court of Missouri since 2004. “I quickly learned that that was not going to be an appropriate major and career for me, so I switched to communications.” Russell credits the various internship opportunities she had as a student at Truman State University as helping spark her interest in attending law school. “I knew for sure that when I went to law school that I never, ever wanted to be in a courtroom … So I guess I learned never to say never.” She encourages students to keep their eyes open and to take advantage of every door that opens to them.
Additional resources and further reading:
MoTalent is a series by the Missouri Department of Higher Education focused on hearing real voices talk about economic and workforce development. This podcast is part of the Best in Midwest and Talent for Tomorrow initiatives.