Except for occasionally being asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” most of us didn’t give much thought to our career options until our college years. Maybe. Our focus up to that point was on getting the grades to get into college.
These days, programs are popping up that capitalize on our teens’ desire to do things on their own terms, channeling that drive to help them find their passion – and maybe turn it into a profession. Imagine a recruiter entering your child’s middle- or high-school class to talk about life skills, passion and examining themselves.
The Now Generation
Blame it on smart phone access at age 10, Internet search engines to answer any question and apps to fill almost every need. Teens in this generation aren’t used to asking anyone for anything, and this could be a positive. Facing a lagging job market and witnessing college graduates struggle to find jobs that pay a good wage, teens are using their connections – both social and informational – to create the lives they imagine. A Gallup poll in 2011 found that eight in 10 teens want to be their own boss. So who’s offering entrepreneurial information to these kids while we academically focused parenting types push for better test scores and mull over college admissions forms?
Professional Development Programs for Youth
Skillify (www.skillifynow.com), a professional development program for high school students, teaches networking, resume building and how to connect with internships and other business opportunities. The program is only two years old, but the impact on the more than 3,000 students who have participated is clear. The sentiment seems to be self-empowerment. The students I spoke with at a recent Skillify conference say that these programs are more about practicing real-life skills and less about tests.
“I feel like school can teach us about a career, but they won’t teach us how to do it ourselves,” says Mollie Pirkle, a Skillify intern and graduate of the program. “Skillify allows us to practice real-life situations. We don’t have that opportunity in school, because it’s about grades.”
Being “Good Enough” Counts
Shireen Jaffer, managing director of Skillify, says this focus on grades can hurt students’ confidence and discourage them from pursuing their passions. “I had this student come to me who spent five hours a day working on videos, but he thought he was too stupid to pursue film despite his clear passion and work ethic to do so,” she says.
Skillify is based on the idea that regardless of grades, financial means, career choice or desire (or not) to attend college, every student should be given an open-door path to success, and all teens need life skills to be productive and follow their passions. “You might want to go to college or you might not want to go to college, but all of you want to be successful,” says Jaffer to the students. “You need the skills to get you there. Everyone needs a mentor, everyone needs an internship, everyone needs experience no matter what you want to do.”
The program is also designed to appeal to over-achievers who want to skip college and dive right into a career. One student attending Skillify says she was interested in the program because she felt it was the only place to learn about entrepreneurship. “They focus on getting into college, but I want to be an entrepreneur,” says Sitembile Sukuta, citing the lagging job market and tough competition in the college-admissions process as reasons for her choice. “I think Skillify will help me network with and understand other entrepreneurs, which I can’t get at school.”
An Even Earlier Start
The Long Beach Unified School District is working to build students’ career skills beginning in seventh and eighth grade. The district’s Possible Futures/Possible Selves program is administered by Jobs for the Future, a national nonprofit working to ensure that under-prepared young people have the skills and credentials they need to succeed.
“The program encourages students to look at their lives through the lens of self, the lens of society and the lens of security,” says Tobie Baker Wright, senior program manager of Jobs For the Future’s Pathways to Prosperity Network. In addition to helping create a real-world picture of how certain careers fit into certain industries, the program encourages students to think about their passions in a broader sense. Wright says the focus on doctors, lawyers and other “hero” careers leaves a lot of kids disillusioned. “We show kids how they can shine in their own area of interest,” she says.
During their Career and College Exploration Experience, students in the program are paired with a partner in the workplace or at a local college, so they can see what college or work is really like in their chosen path. This gives them an opportunity to think about what lies ahead and shape their college or career pursuits to fit their dreams. The program is set to add STEM career exploration, and expand to all middle schools in Long Beach Unified.
Wondering whether career skills can really make a difference if your child is barely into her teens? Southern California teen entrepreneur Seiji Yamaguchi would likely tell you they can. At 13, before she was even wearing more than lip gloss and mascara, Yamaguchi – whose parents are veteran beauty-industry professionals and run their own salon – decided to launch her own makeup line.
In an August article on Huffington Post, Yamaguchi describes the tremendous amount of work she has put into her line, called Seiji, and the ongoing learning process of maintaining the business. “Starting my own company has been an amazing learning experience where I am utilizing my math skills, writing skills, as well as social marketing and displays,” Yamaguchi writes. Her post, tellingly, is titled, “Who Says I Have To Wait On My Life?”
Carolyn Richardson is an L.A. mom of three and a freelance writer.