Career Counseling for Plan A and Plan B

By Kenneth Gray

Career counseling, particularly of teenagers, has always been a challenge. In the eyes of both teens and their parents, the stakes were perceived to be low. If career goals were absent, “no problem” they thought, there would be time to figure that out later in college. Likewise, counselors endorsed this same point of view when they counseled those with no career plans to go to college anyway. And for the most part such counseling seemed justified. But no longer!

Most everyone now realizes we have, in fact, entered different times. The competition for family-sustaining work is now worldwide. Annual earnings for baccalaureate graduates in the U.S. have been declining since 2000 while student loan debt has gone in the opposite direction. Underemployment/over-credentialing among college graduates is common; in the “Baccalaureate and Beyond” study by the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), almost half of respondents indicated they were in jobs that did not require a degree and had no real career potential. Using Department of Labor and Education data, we estimate that the supply of four-year college graduates exceeds labor market demand by at least 45%.

Much is made about the future opportunities in the so-called “knowledge economy,” but it is exactly these types of occupations that are the easiest to send abroad with a click of the computer key. We also often hear much about college graduates earning more than non-college graduates, the implication being that it is because they have a degree. Everyone seems convinced of this except economists who study this issue. The truth is that education explains only 10% of the variance in income among individuals. Eighty-three percent of two-year college graduates have the same annual earnings as four-year college graduates; about a fifth of college graduates earn less than high school graduates, similarly about a fifth of high school graduates earn more than college graduates. Thus it is wise for all involved to realize that the payoff to just having more education is far from guaranteed.

Also, it is wise to observe that increased earnings from education go only to those who have degrees that are related to needed skills in the labor market. For example, in the NCES study mention above, the underemployment of arts and science majors was an astonishing 67%: only one in three reported finding work that they could not have gotten right out of high school. Meanwhile the under-employment rate for those with one and two year technician level degrees was nil.

If there is a silver lining in this cloud for career counselors, it is that parents, teens, and school officials are taking a good deal more seriously career counseling and student achieving an appropriate level of career maturity. In our follow-up studies of high school graduates, one of the few things both the academically blessed and the less blessed agree upon is that they wish they had more opportunity to explore careers while in high school. Parents feel the same way; overwhelming they support more emphasis on career exploration in the teen years.

Importance of Career Maturity and Career Exploration

The conclusion to be made from today’s labor market uncertainty is “not” that teens should avoid college but instead that if their reasons to matriculate include the hope of increased earnings after graduation, they should have a minimal level of career maturity. Specifically, I mean that they should have at least a tentative idea of where in the labor market they hope to compete when they graduate, and then, make decisions accordingly regarding what colleges to apply to. This is why career exploration that leads to this level of maturity is so important in the teen years. Students who go to college – and I mean one, two, or four year degree programs - and who have a career goal, are both much more likely to graduate and more likely to end up with commensurate employment when they do. As an example, graduation and job placement rates are always greater for students in majors that are career specific.

Two Career Counseling Essentials

Let me conclude by recommending two essentials in career counseling of the college bound. The first is that from the beginning, insist that clients develop not one but “ two” career plans; plan A and plan B. This strategy is the best I have found to get teens and their parents to even consider an alternative to the “One Way to Win” plan, namely baccalaureate education. Many teens, particularly students in the academic middle of their high school class, would be better advised to make different postsecondary plans. While most parents and teens are reluctant to give up the four-year dream, they are willing at least to go through the mental excise of developing a fallback or plan B. In the end it is up to teens and their parents, not us, to decide when plan B should become plan A. Our responsibility is to make that decision possible.

The second counseling essential is to help teens and parents to realize that there are, in fact, “Other Ways to Win”; occupations that pay family-sustaining wages and where demand exceeds the supply of those who are qualified. The overall best source of other ways to win is technician level employment. In high skills/high wage industries the ratio of professional to technicians is 1 to 2. As an example, there will be twice as many jobs for computer support technicians, as there will be for computer engineers. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, there are more than enough students preparing to be computer engineers to meet labor market demand, meanwhile the opposite is true for technicians.

Ken Gray is Professor of Workforce Education and Development in the College of Education at Penn State University. He is the principal author of the book “Other Ways to Win” that argues for one and two year technical degree alternatives to baccalaureate education for those in the academic middle. The 3rd edition of this book contains the backup for data presented in this article. He can be reached via Email: gty@psu.edu

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