Between Pipe Dreams and Pipelines: Where Career Development Professionals Help Most

By Becky Bobek and Garry Klein

What do you tell students who aspire to be professional athletes when you know the supply far exceeds the demand? Or, what do you say to students who want to be surgeons but have low levels of achievement in math and science? Do you provide students with the guidance that encourages them to pursue careers that are most needed in the workforce, or careers that most closely fits with their achievement levels? Or, do you provide guidance that encourages students to chase their dreams and challenges them to improve their skills? These questions highlight some of the issues that career development professionals currently face. As the U.S. strives to strengthen its labor force and economy in globally competing markets, national education initiatives are promoting student "pipelines" from education to the workforce. This means strongly encouraging students to pursue careers most needed in the workforce. As a result, many career development professionals are looked upon increasingly to help students develop realistic career plans to meet projected labor market needs of the future.

Throughout the U.S. and in many industrialized countries, students enter the workforce at some point after they complete high school or college. For students in some countries, this transition involves a structured path from school-sponsored apprenticeship programs to relevant jobs in the labor market, or specific curricula for college-bound students who enter college and then jobs that require college degrees. In the U.S., students' transitions are less structured and historically, students have not always been encouraged to fully consider how their aspirations, achievement levels, and other attributes may interact with the requirements of the workforce.

For example, the chart below compares the percentage of 2004-2014 projected annual job openings for a sample of five career fields to the percentage of 2006 ACT-tested high school students who are interested in these fields. Differences between expected jobs and interested students are apparent for careers in computer specialties (computer programmers, database administrators, etc.) and education (secondary teachers, administrators, etc.) with a higher percent of jobs expected than students interested in these fields. On the other hand, a higher percent of students are interested in the medical diagnosis & treatment (dentists, pathologists, etc.) and creative & performing arts (singer, movie director, etc.) fields than expected jobs in these career fields. Many times, students are not aware of the fact that the careers they aspire to may be extremely difficult to enter because of an oversupply of workers, or because the education and experience needed to qualify for these careers is far more extensive than expected. Further, students may not be aware of the possible benefits and economic advantages associated with pursuing careers in high demand.

Chart - Difference Between Students interested in Health Care Field and Jobs Expected

In addition, the difference between students interested in the health care field (nurses, occupational therapists, etc.) and the jobs expected to be available in this field is narrower than other fields, but many of these students are not ready for college. Readiness for college among students interested in the health care field is important because many occupations in this field require postsecondary education. Slightly more than one-half of these students (53 percent) are prepared for first-year college coursework in English, while approximately one-third (35 percent) are prepared to succeed in college-level social science courses. Less than one-quarter are ready for college-level math (17 percent) and science (10 percent) courses.

A majority of students interested in medical diagnosis & treatment, creative & performing arts, and education fields are ready for college-level English (71, 71, and 67 percent, respectively) and social science (54, 55, and 51 percent, respectively) courses, but considerably fewer students are prepared to succeed in college-level math (41, 33, and 30 percent, respectively) and science (28, 24, and 18 percent, respectively) courses. Clearly, students who want to succeed in the field of medical diagnosis & treatment should be encouraged to do better in math and science. Once again, appropriate educational and career guidance can help students recognize whether they are prepared to achieve their career goals, and how they can become better prepared for college and career success.

Moreover, many students who enter college in pursuit of careers that require additional education will change their college majors. Some of these students will earn degrees in majors they have prepared for during high school, but far more lack the information needed to make informed major choices and lack the preparation needed to be successful in pursuing these choices. Student preferences and achievement levels, and workforce realities can better inform these choices.

Taken together, students' interests, academic preparation, planned majors for students entering college, and other individual circumstances should frame the discussions career development professionals have with students about workforce realities. Strategies career development professionals can use to help address these realities may include parent/student conferences that include discussions of future career and educational plans as they relate to students' interests, achievement, and job outlook information, and group presentations where career development professionals or outside speakers can discuss with students the typical preparation needed for entering specific occupational fields.

During our presentation (#606) at the NCDA global conference in Seattle on July 7th, we will further discuss the U.S. disparities between students and workforce realities, and provide additional strategies that may help career development professionals balance the needs of students and the needs of the labor market. We welcome all NCDA members to join us there!

Becky L. Bobek, Ph.D is a career research psychologist at ACT, Inc, and a former assistant professor, college counselor, and k-12 teacher. She can be reached at becky.bobek@act.org

Garry Klein, M.S. is a career transitions researcher and former guidance counselor working for ACT, Inc. He can be reached at garry.klein@act.org

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