My friend Shannon’s daughter Stacy, a high school junior, was an intelligent girl who was bored and unmotivated in a traditional academic setting. Shannon recognized that, as a single mother, she didn’t have the financial resources to help fund a university education for a student who didn’t enjoy school and wasn’t likely to win any merit scholarships. So she made an unconventional decision.
After discussing with Stacy what she wanted to do after graduation, Shannon pulled Stacy out of public high school and enrolled her at a local high school vocational program. It was a smart move. Stacy learned a marketable skill, found a job immediately after graduation, and did well in her chosen field.
The process of launching a teen into the “real world” can be a season of high anxiety for parents. For one, the decisions teens make during these years often have lifelong implications. Add to that the social pressure to follow a college-bound career path and the concern escalates — particularly when the teen is not interested in college. So what’s the best path for our teens? And how do we help them navigate their options so they will be set up for a successful career?
What are the options?
In previous generations, high school graduates went on to college much less frequently than they do today. Yet somehow in more recent years, college has almost become a rite of passage. If college isn’t right for your teens, or isn’t right for them as a first step, help them explore other opportunities that fit their skills and interests.
Vocational schools offer specific training for a wide variety of skilled careers. The list is long: mechanic, plumber, electrician, vet technician, surgical technician, medical billing worker, information technology expert, chef, hair stylist, fire fighter, police officer, physical therapy assistant, event planner, building contractor, carpenter, and the list goes on. Depending on the passions and skills of the student, this pathway can be the most reliable solution for landing a good job.
As your teen considers this option, it’s important to ask a few questions about possible vocational schools: Is the school/program licensed or accredited? What is the quality of the facility and equipment? What is the program’s completion rate? (A low completion rate indicates students didn’t like the program and dropped out.) What is their job placement rate?
An apprenticeship is paid, on-the-job training, in which your child will learn the skills needed for a job under a master craftsman. These jobs are usually focused on manual, mechanical or technical skills, and could range from carpentry to welding to high-tech manufacturing. Apprenticeships also potentially offer an eventual certification as a “journeyman” in the chosen industry, making their skills transferable.
A good place to start looking for apprenticeship opportunities is the United States Department of Labor website. The apprenticeship page can alert you to potential programs, inform you of their requirements and standards, and help you find a good fit based on your child’s interests and skill set.
Another option for your teen is to consider entering the workforce directly after high school. Even if he starts at minimum wage, intelligence, good character and a strong work ethic can help him quickly move up the ladder and can provide a good experience before he decides on a long-term career path.
If your teen opts for this track, help him steer away from companies that typically hire teens for part-time work. Instead seek out employers that can provide a future and advancement. Encourage your teen to identify companies whose products or services interest him, and whose culture he respects.
Then help your child figure out where he’d like to be in five years and plot a path to reaching his goal. Sometimes that will be within a single, larger corporation, and sometimes it will be within a small business, with the need to make career moves to other companies in time.
Moving up a ladder isn’t the ideal career direction for everyone, so remind your teen that there is nothing wrong with finding a good situation where he finds purpose in the work and gets along with people. To understand real life, have your teen interview people who have the job he eventually wants, in order to see what it actually entails, how he can get there and how many years it has taken others to get there.
My son-in-law Jacob is a good example of this career path. He is now a top manager at a renowned warehouse-store chain. At 32, he is among the youngest people in his position. Jacob started working for the company when he was 18, pushing carts in the parking lot. Before long, his supervisor recognized his initiative and intelligence, and he was rapidly promoted to cashier, then supervisor, department manager and upward after that. Jacob enjoys an excellent salary and benefits that enable him to provide well for his young family — and he loves his job and career prospects. This track has proven to be a great fit for him.
Joining the armed forces allows many teens to discover their skills, serve their country, gain job training and travel the world. While it does require a certain number of years of commitment, and includes the possibility of being placed in areas of danger, it also offers early retirement with benefits, a dependable salary, free health care, little-to-no living costs and GI Bill benefits that help with college in the future.
What’s best for my teen?
As you and your teen consider her post-graduation options, it’s best to celebrate her uniqueness and be a partner in discovering how she can best use that uniqueness in a career. Here are some tips for helping your teen find the best fit for the future:
It’s often easier for your teen to answer the question, “What are you interested in?” than, “What do you want to be or do?” Many times, teens have no idea exactly what they want to do. And without an initial career direction, your teens may want to consider all their options to better understand if college is a valuable step for them at this time. Likely, they can at least offer some ideas of things they like and their preferred working environment, which tends to head them in some direction.
Young adults often need help to understand themselves. Do they like working primarily with people or things/tasks? Are they happier indoors or out? Would they be fulfilled in a job that is repetitive, or do they need variety in what they do? Some people don’t mind work that others might deem a menial task, as long as they have the satisfaction of a job well done and a paycheck at the end. This is a time for you to offer your insight as well. You may have noticed skills that your teen never realized.
Introduce him to career fields
Many teens have no idea about the broad range of options available to them. Help your teen connect with people employed in different trades. The reality check of talking with and observing actual practitioners in a job field can help avoid training for a job your teen wouldn’t ultimately enjoy.
Help support his research
Most young people are inexperienced and unaware of the resources available. Encourage him to visit his career counselor or resource center at school. Set aside times to do online research together on trade schools and apprenticeships. Be available without being pushy. (Think “passenger seat,” not “driver’s seat.”)
Help her seek employment opportunities
Encourage your teen to get job experience before graduating from high school. And instead of just taking any job, suggest looking for a position that might lead to a career, or find out if that job has additional career opportunities. For example, if your daughter thinks she might like managing a retail clothing store one day, show her how she could take a job as a retail clerk now and work her way up to department lead and then manager. Bonus: Working while in high school will help your teen build an understanding of what real-world employers are looking for — work ethic, dependability, integrity, punctuality and teamwork.
As parents, we can cut down on our teens’ anxiety — and our own — when we help uncover their talents, and then celebrate how God created them with those unique traits. And we relieve pressure when we encourage our teens to take the path of discovery without having to find the perfect career immediately.
Arlyn Lawrence is an author and the coauthor of Parenting for the Launch: Raising Teens to Succeed in the Real World.