Steering children toward fruitful careers

Cindy Krischer Goodman / The Miami Herald /

Published Nov 28, 2012 at 04:00AM

My daughter, a high-school junior, wants to be a teacher. That doesn’t sit well with my husband, who worries about the state of education and the job outlook. He and I regularly debate whether we should encourage her to pursue this interest, or strongly steer her in another direction.

Today, coaching our kids about career paths is complicated. Many of my reporter and editor friends who witnessed an overhaul of the media world are highly opposed to their kids becoming journalists. Where parents of the past pushed their kids to follow in their footsteps, we want the generation of college-bound kids we raise to go where the jobs will be.

American workers’ experiences during the recession and the uncertainty of the global economy have made many of us more opinionated about what careers our kids pursue. We have witnessed job loss and burnout. We have seen highly educated professionals such as lawyers and bankers lose their jobs. And worse, we have seen college graduating classes face an overwhelmingly tough employment arena.

While it’s true that a college degree usually guarantees better wages, the mantra of parents clearly has become: Can you land a decent-paying job with that degree?

As parents, we’re just beginning to understand that the next generation will have to navigate the workplace differently. Experts forecast that workers starting out now will switch careers — that’s careers, not jobs — an average of more than three times during their lives. Should parents, then, worry less about guiding our kids into careers and focus more on helping our kids identify skills to succeed in the new economy?

Whether my daughter becomes a teacher or an engineer, her success likely will come from a mastery of technology, languages and communications skills. Most importantly, she will need the mind-set to be a problem solver, innovator, risk taker and self-marketer. She will need to be prepared to continuously acquire new skills, a lesson my generation has learned the hard way.

“We are fooling ourselves to think young people will get a degree and spend the next 20 years at a single company or in a single industry,” said John Swartz, regional director of career services at Everest College, which has campuses in 30 cities. “They will have to be more focused on dealing with change. In this new world order, they have to follow the jobs in demand, acquire the right skills or at least transferable skills, and know that the skill set needed might change.”

For example, Swartz said, he has seen young people get training to become medical assistants because they have a passion to help others. They later were able to apply those skills to other jobs in health care. “Parents need to help their kids soul-search, then support their decision whatever they choose, understanding that every good high-wage job requires more skill,” Swartz said.

Cesar Alvarez, executive chairman of Greenberg Traurig law firm, factors this concept into how he advises his four children, ages 28, 27, 22 and 21. For centuries, the law profession has attracted smart, principled men and women. Yet in the past few years, we’ve seen lawyers underemployed, law partners burned out and law school graduates without jobs. I asked Alvarez whether he has encouraged any of his children to enter the legal profession.

Alvarez said he has a daughter in her second year of law school. But rather than encouraging her to become a lawyer, he has suggested that law school will help her gain a skill she can use in any profession — problem-solving. He also has been brutally honest with her about the demands of the profession and its job prospects. “Law is a wonderful profession; however, it’s time-consuming. You don’t have the ability to control your time in the same way you do in other professions.”

Alvarez explained to his daughter that supply and demand will dictate whether there will be jobs when she graduates, and he encouraged her to have a back-up plan.

In coaching our kids about career paths, business ownership has become an increasingly realistic back-up plan. I recently attended the Women’s Success Summit in Miami. A panel of female business owners spoke about their experiences growing profitable businesses after having earlier careers. These women saw opportunity later in life and took it because they believed they could make money on their own terms using skills they acquired over decades.

Ginny Simon, founder of Ginnybakes, which sells organic, gluten-free baked goods and mixes, said she would encourage an aspiring entrepreneur to get a business education. But she said the key skill they will need in entrepreneurship is listening. Simon found a niche in the market as a holistic nutritionist when she listened to what her clients were seeking. Even without a business degree, she has landed her products on the shelves of major chains by understanding trends, staying flexible and having enough passion for her products to stay the course.

In guiding her four sons, ages 24 to 17, Simon said she advises them to think broadly about the education and skills they go after, leaving themselves leeway to be opportunistic. “I tell my sons, ‘Do not lock yourselves in too tightly. Make sure there’s room for movement in whatever field you choose.’ ”

As a parent, I also want my daughter to have enough room in her choice to create the kind of work-life balance that allows her to earn a good paycheck without sacrificing family, health or sanity. I guess we both should be prepared for a career exploration process that may be rife with twists and turns — and opportunities.