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)



  • although some children needed coaxing, all could identify occupational aspirations; no child ever picked "homemaker" as an occupational choice
  • occupational choices followed gender lines; boys wanted men's work, girls wanted women's work
  • boys' occupational aspirations were often fantasy jobs, usually professional athlete (29% in second grade and 42% in fourth grade)
  • far fewer girls had fantasy aspirations such as professional artist or dancer, or TV personality (10% in second grade and 13% in fourth grade)
  • children had been exposed to a wide variety of occupations

    Middle (Sixth and Eighth Grades) :
  • the range of possible occupational aspirations for girls exceeded the range for boys; this was a new phenomena not found in pre-1990s research
  • boys were still firmly entrenched in fantasy occupations; the number of girls in fantasy jobs remained at about the same level as in the elementary years
  • by eighth grade, 96% of the students aspired to high social value jobs in the professional, technical and managerial category
  • in general, girls no longer wanted women's work; they switched to men's work which typically has higher social value (consistent with Gottfredson's theory)
  • middle schoolers were very active outside of school; they averaged 1.5 hobbies, 2.5 sports/lessons/activities, 3.5 chores
  • compared to elementary or high school responses, middle schoolers had the widest range of responses in terms of occupations selected (high social value) and annual adult job salary expectations
  • middle schoolers were open to vast possibilities; many had a can-do attitude; over 90% planned to attend college

    High School (Tenth and Twelfth Grades) :
  • in high school, students occupational aspirations were more similar to occupational expectations than they were in other grades
  • the percentage of students desiring high social value jobs decreased from an earlier high of 96% to 81%
  • the number of out-of-school lessons/sports/activities as well as chores, declined from earlier years
  • sixty-two percent of tenth graders had jobs; as twelfth graders, 94% of them worked
  • the majority of tenth and twelfth graders indicated that they had had "in-depth" discussions with parents about careers
  • as second graders, 83% of this sample lived with both parents; as seniors, only 64% reported living with both parents
  • twelfth graders reported that after parents, a high school teacher had the most career impact on them (32% named teacher as most influential)
  • as seniors in high school, 56% reported an occupational aspiration they had never mentioned in the previous ten years

    Some questions which spring from the findings:
  • Although children can name many different occupations, how can we expand the exposure they have to more diverse occupations?
  • Can we use children's fantasy occupations to "see and experience" themselves in a variety of job roles?
  • How can we more consistently expose students to (and encourage them to consider) a variety of educational/occupational/service work possibilities?
  • Despite (or consistent with) the enormous developmental changes students experience, is there value in encouraging them to focus on a more and more circumscribed set of occupational possibilities through the school years?

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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