Lessons from a Ten-Year Career Development Study

by Andrew A. Helwig

A ten-year longitudinal study of several career development concepts and processes was conducted with a sample of students. Beginning in the second grade, each student was interviewed for up to a half-hour and re-interviewed in the fourth, sixth, eighth, tenth and twelfth grades. The sample was from a middle-class suburban area and not diverse; eighty-six percent of the students were White. Parents averaged over 13 years of education. The study concluded with 103 students in spring 1998. At that time, data was also collected from a control group and comparisons were made with the longitudinal sample.

Of principal interest were students' occupational aspirations and occupational expectations. Those occupations were categorized several ways: as high social value occupations (professional, technical, and managerial) or not, emphasis on data-people-things, male-female-neutral jobs based on national Department of Labor statistics, and Holland primary code. School subject preferences, out-of-school activities, perceptions of parental occupational expectations, chores, hobbies, adult job salary expectations, college attendance aspiration, and other variables were measured. Fantasy occupations were defined previously in the literature as those almost mythical such as prince/princess and Wonder Woman, or very highly competitive such as professional athlete, or glamorous such as TV personality and model. Only a miniscule percentage of adults find themselves in such positions.

Major findings at each of the grade categories follow. Remember that this data came from a suburban, White middle-class sample of students whose parents had agreed to let their children participate in the study.
Elementary (Second and Fourth Grades)


Other Findings, Suggestions and Conclusions

Holland primary code for the students' occupational aspirations was generally reliable (consistent) although over the ten-year time span, many students reported occupations which were across the hexagon. The fact that 56% of the seniors reported a current aspiration never mentioned before, signals that not until the end of the high school years do students know, care about, or expect to make a meaningful occupational selection. Why should they? They are having way too much fun "trying on" different careers for themselves including fantasy ones. Besides, what's the rush? Most, (about 90% of this sample) envisioned going to college which is time enough to sort through career possibilities.

Consequently, until "career readiness" is experienced near the end of high school for many students, earlier career education activities and experiences may be mostly irrelevant, or may be adding to an invisible occupational knowledge base of the students, but the actual need to do something about it doesn't exist. Perhaps the greatest facilitator of career readiness occurs through actual job experiences, which for students are typically first jobs in low-paying fast-food, service/retail or manual labor.

As seniors, this sample of students was compared to a "control" group on the Career Factors Inventory. The longitudinal sample (studied for 10 years) had significantly higher scores on Need for Career Information, Need for Self Knowledge, and Career Choice Anxiety, i.e., they were more anxious about making a career decision than the controls. The longitudinal sample reported more confidence in their occupational future than did controls and this difference was statistically significant.

In sum, it appears that the students in the ten-year study who experienced a half-hour one-on-one discussion with an adult about their career issues every two years, were more "mature" about their need for self-knowledge and career information. They were also more career confident than students who did not have such an opportunity. Is that too much to ask? A half-hour every two years?

For a more traditional theoretical and research oriented presentation of the results of this longitudinal study, see:
Helwig, A. A. (2004). A ten-year longitudinal study of the career development of students: Summary findings. Journal of Counseling and Development, 82, 49-57.

Andrew A. Helwig, Ph.D., LPC, NCC, NCCC
Professor, Counseling Psychology and Counselor Education
University of Colorado at Denver & Health Sciences Center
P.O. Box 173364
Denver, CO 80217-3364
E-mail: andrew.helwig@cudenver.edu

Andy has completed 20 years at the University of Colorado at Denver. He is also known for developing study materials for counselors preparing for the National Counselor Exam and similar exams such as graduate comprehensives. For more information, visit: www.counselor-exam-prep.com.

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