Letter from the Editor/When is the right time to ask children to make career decisions?

My son will be entering the 5th grade next year, which means that he will be going into Middle School in our school system. Just recently we received some information that allowed us to choose some of his classes for next year. Not the big stuff like Math, Science, Language Arts or Social Studies, but the classes that you might call “electives”. They could pick several options out of this list: band, chorus, Physical Education/Health, Art, Music, Spanish, and S.T.E.M. (Science Technology Engineering Math).

It’s all pretty standard stuff and I thought it was kind of nice that the kids got to choose based on their interests. I don’t think any of these choices really amount to having to decide a career path at the age of 10 or 11, but they do make you start thinking about what your child’s interests and strengths might be. Luckily, when I talked to my son about the options, he chose the courses that I really felt were best for him (without me having to say anything- Yeah!).

When I went to school, I don’t recall having a choice in classes until high school. And if I remember correctly, there was the “college bound” path, the “vocational school” path or probably the “just tell me what I need to do to graduate” path. I came from a family of college graduates and I don’t remember ever thinking twice about going to college. It just became the given next step in my education. While going to college is certainly not a bad thing, I think maybe my attitude toward it being a “given” didn’t help me feel any need to think about why I was going! So, after picking the “college bound” courses in high school and then earning my BA, I wasn’t a whole lot closer to deciding what it was that I wanted to do with my life!

So, given my own experience, I am very aware that asking kids to make long term career decisions is pretty tough in high school, let alone middle school. However, since I now find myself in a business that has a very difficult time hiring experienced truck drivers and diesel technicians, I think we need to do something more to help identify students who might excel in professions that don’t require a four-year college degree. By the time a student (like me) who doesn’t really know what he/she wants to do completes college because it’s a “given” and potentially has loans to pay off upon graduating, it’s a little late to decide that maybe they should have gone to vocational school. And it’s not helping the business sectors in our country that are really hurting for skilled labor.

Of course students are going to have trouble deciding and will change their minds, but I think the more they can experience real life work environments at younger ages, the more they can at least rule out what they don’t want to do! My son loves animals and thinks that he might want to be a Zoologist (that’s if he doesn’t make it into the NFL). Well, you probably need a PhD to land most Zoology jobs and the most common opportunity is Zookeeping, which does include animal interaction, but also means a lot of feeding and cleaning, which isn’t necessarily as cool as you might think it would be. So, I’d be a lot happier if he went and shadowed a Zoologist for a day to see if it’s really what he thinks it is before he decides to invest 6 years of his time and money pursuing a degree in that field!

How do we do a better job of introducing kids to their options? How do we help them identify their long term priorities (is it making the most money they can, working outside, supporting a cause, etc.) when they probably can’t decide what they are going to do on Friday night? It’s a tough one!  But, as the trucking industry watches the vast majority of our workforce age and near retirement with little gains in attracting younger workers and no real viable plan to do that, I think it’s an important subject. And even though you might not be in my shoes trying to hire drivers, you’re going to feel the repercussions of this problem in trying to ship your products or in the prices of goods. We’ll all share it eventually.

I haven’t come up with any answers in this article, only a whole lot of questions! But awareness of the subject is a start, I guess. Be sure to let me know if you have any ideas!

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