You can’t be Whatever You Want to be

Why do we in America constantly tell children that they can be whatever they want to be? When asked what they want to be when they grow up, large percentages of adolescent boys reply that they want to be a professional athlete. We generally encourage our children to set their aspirations high, at President or professional athlete, at Astronaut or movie star. Such aspirations are wonderful in that they challenge children to reach for lofty goals, but the reality is that a tiny percentage of us will ever attain such positions.

It’s great if children reach for their dreams early in life, but as high school wears on, reality should begin to take hold. Unfortunately, only 25% of Americans ever complete a Bachelor’s level education, and US high schools have not historically focused on vocational education. Career counseling at high schools has never been particularly up-to-date with regard to job market demand, and has often been replaced with purely behavioral counseling at schools struggling under budget cuts. Thus, as tens of thousands of positions in health care and IT go unfilled, unemployment among the young (18-25) and minorities remains doggedly high. To fill the gap, the US must recruit hundreds of thousands of skilled foreign workers every year to fill positions that American students are not educated to perform. Bill Gates has reinforced this point in recent speeches, noting that hundreds of thousands of international IT workers will be needed to meet the demand of US companies in coming years.

Do these jobs go unfilled because American students aren’t interested in health care or information technology? Do they realize that after even a two-year degree, many positions in these fields pay $35,000 annually? And that a 4 year degree in nursing, computer science, or MIS can lead to a salary starting above $45,000?

Or is the disjoint caused simply because most high school kids know close to nothing about the job market? Without any counseling, and with parents telling them they can pursue anything under the sun, perhaps there is simply an asymmetry of information at work. It’s likely that this is at least part of the problem; witness the number of adults in their early 20s returning to school to pursue better employment opportunities. If a lack of information is the problem, and both schools and parents aren’t filling the gap, then perhaps the private sector should step up. Provide high school students with detailed information on potential career paths and realistic salary projections, and those with initiative will absorb it up quickly. Information is cheap, and once unleashed, companies would gain a new stream of recruits, and youth would gain employment – so why can’t we as a society do more to fix this?

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