Parents as Partners in College Student Career Planning

By Sharon Gilbert

'One of the greatest paradoxes of human development is that we are required to make crucial choices, especially about careers and work, before we have the knowledge, judgment and self understanding to choose wisely.' - Daniel Levinson

College students often assume that career planning will take care of itself when the time comes. Panic sets in during their senior year with the realization that they must soon face the work world, but have no idea what they will do. To help avoid this, parents can be encouraged to get involved early on as collaborators or coaches in their child's career development. In today's fast-changing, highly competitive and global job market, their involvement is more important than ever. My aim in this article is to educate my fellow career counselors on how we can facilitate this process.

After investing in a college education for a child, parents do not want to hear that their son or daughter is confused about what career to pursue, unaware of what's out there, or how to land a job of his or her choice. For parents this translates into: no job, no money, maybe no health insurance, and more than likely prolonged dependence on Mom and Dad.

The problem lies in the fact that career decision-making is not well understood by many students; therefore career planning seems daunting to them. Ironically, most people go to college to prepare for a career, yet while there, few actually think of being proactive in career planning. Without proper guidance, they are destined to join the many college graduates who settle for the wrong career because they don't know the choices open to them or what they have to offer.

While colleges offer services that can help students achieve academic, professional and extracurricular goals, the trick is getting students to take advantage of these opportunities. In reality, students do not always have the insight to be proactive about career planning. College life can be quite demanding, with attention divided between academic pressures, extracurricular life and an active social environment.

Ultimately the child must take charge of his or her career development, but parents can play an important role. Much has been written lately of the interfering "helicopter parents," a term coined to describe the hovering style of some parents. So we need to be clear that their job is not to make decisions for their child, but to act as collaborators or coaches, respecting their child's need for autonomy as he or she transitions into adulthood. They can do this by being positive and encouraging, endorsing successes, and being a sounding board for their child.

What We Can Do to Help

As career professionals, we can help parents to understand their role and guide them in ways to best help their student succeed through this important decision-making process. Marketing materials targeted to parents should encourage them to partner with Career Services in pointing their student in the right direction. This can be done through different venues.

  • A Freshman Parent Orientation Program is a good forum to discuss the importance of making sure their child knows where the Career Center is and understands what services are offered. We can stress the value of exploring the Career Center's web site with their student as a way to discuss the importance of integrating career planning with academics.
  • Most Career Centers have included a Parents Page on their web site, but more in-depth information can be provided, such as a "Tips" section on coaching their student to be more proactive in career planning. This "Tips" section might also include some "Dont's" for parents such as
    • Don't call the career office to discuss your child's needs.
    • Don't write your child's resume.
    • Don't ask to sit in on an appointment with your child.
  • During check-in for Open House, Freshmen Orientation, Homecoming, Family Weekend, and other such events, parents can sign up and list their email addresses if they want to be sent pertinent career announcements. These messages can be sent throughout the semesters highlighting important workshops, events, job opportunities, etc.
  • Above all, we need to stress the importance and benefits of experiential learning (internships, cooperative education, and field work) emphasizing that:
    • Students who work in the field learn where they want to pursue a career and learn what to expect.
    • Testing an occupation allows the student to develop the hard and soft skills employers want.
    • Employers often look to their internship programs to find new full-time employees.

Unique Ideas

As a career advisor at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), I have been discussing the following ideas with my team to tap into this overlooked constituency:

1) Have a voluntary Major/Career Decision Workshop in the evening for freshmen and their parents during semester break. Since most of our students live in New Jersey, they would not have far to travel. Parents can learn about their child's preferences through hands-on fun assessment exercises. It will also educate them to the availability and usefulness of career testing.

2) Recruit volunteers at the Parents Freshmen Orientation to participate in a pilot project to track their student's career development progress through their college years. At the same time Career Services will support their new parenting role by suggesting and describing techniques they can use to communicate with their child about career goals and plans. Comparing the results of this group with another test group of students not being coached can prove to be interesting information to share with parents in the future. The goal for parents is to learn that their role is to guide their child to his or her own answers.

3) Create video podcasts that parents can download to learn about the many services available through Career Development Services and some of the challenges and concerns commonly facing college students regarding career planning. These podcasts can be made available on DVDs to parents who attend Orientations, Open Houses, and other on-campus events.

Counselors Empower Parents

All parents want to see their child develop an attitude of "I'll make it happen," but even those students who are highly motivated are embarking on uncharted waters, and having the right type of parental support can reassure them. I encourage college counselors to empower parents to become involved and provide them with the right tools to support their child's career development. While life has few guarantees, I believe that parents can make the difference for their young adults when they understand the value and methods of raising their child's career awareness.

Sharon Gilbert has over 20 years of professional experience in a variety of roles, from Job Analyst to HR Director of College Relations to her present position as Assistant Director of Career Development Services for New Jersey Institute of Technology. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor in New Jersey, receiving her Masters in Counseling from Montclair State University and her Career Development Certification from New York University. Sharon can be reached at 973-596-3644 or gilbertm@njit.edu.

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