Logic tells us that without exposure to the vast array of career possibilities that await them, young people’s future options will be limited. If they can’t see it, there’s a good chance they won’t choose it or be prepared for it.

Shelley Gates was the longtime chair of the ETHS Career and Technical Education department. Credit: Shelley Gates

A recent study by Joblist asked young workers (Gen-X, Millennial and Gen-Z) about the importance of parental influence on their education and career choices.

Not surprisingly, this influence was profound. A majority (65%) of the young adults surveyed work in the career field their parents wanted for them.

But what if parents of today’s teens (and others who work with them regularly) do not have an accurate picture of the rapidly changing job market and the skills needed to thrive in an ever-changing environment?

Career landscape in the 21st century

Here are just a few facts regarding the complex and misaligned career landscape and job market facing today’s young adults:

  • For every occupation that requires a master’s degree or more, two professional jobs require a university degree, and there are over half a dozen jobs requiring either a certification or a two-year degree. (This is the “1:2:7 ratio” explained by Kevin Fleming to help us understand the current dilemma of an over-saturation of people with degrees but lacking tangible skills.)
  • The World Economic Forum predicts that by 2025, with the growth of precision AI, up to 85 million jobs may become redundant. For an example of how this will occur, take a look at all of the recent news articles about ChatGPT, a large language model chatbot developed by OpenAI that can interact in conversational dialogue and develop responses that are surprisingly human.
  • According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, the “Middle Skills Pathway” – between a high school diploma and a bachelor’s degree – is a viable and often overlooked pathway to many well-paying jobs with career growth potential. Those taking this pathway are earning certifications, associate degrees and microcredentials. A unique aspect of middle skills credentials (certifications, associate degrees and microcredentials) is their direct connection to careers.
  • By analyzing hundreds of millions of recent U.S. job postings, the Burning Glass Institute and Business-Higher Education Forum recently identified the following skills sets as the fastest-growing and in highest demand by employers: Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning, Cloud Computing, Product Management and Social Media

It’s no wonder that many parents, students, educators and employers feel confused and stressed out about post-high school planning and options.

Borrowing from Mark C. Perna, author of the book, Answering Why: Unleashing Passion, Purpose, and Performance in Younger Generations, I believe the best strategy is for young people to develop short-term “for now” directions rather than definitive, overwhelming life goals.

Examples: “For now, I will reflect on what I like to do, what I am good at, and which classes I like” or “For now, I will do some research on careers that pay well and might be a good match for my skills and interests” or “For now, I will learn more about all the career options in the health care field and the educational requirements for different jobs.” Always having a “for now” direction can reduce anxiety and lead to better post-high school decision-making.

Career possibilities: Not all roads require four-year degree

While students are considering their “for now” direction, we can help them by sharing information about the multitude of career opportunities that do not require a four-year college or professional degree.

For example, taking a look at the list of skills sets that are the fastest-growing and most in-demand by employers, the area that is probably most familiar to young people (and to us older adults as well) is social media.

Did you know that many social media jobs do not require a four-year degree? In fact, many companies will hire entry-level employees or interns who have a strong understanding of social media and are eager to learn even without a degree.

Did you know that you can build your skills and experience through entry-level positions, and potentially work your way up within a company?

Alternatively, did you know that you can get certified via one of the many social media certification programs available from organizations like Hootsuite or the Digital Marketing Institute?

For a young person who might be interested in a career in social media, a good “for now” goal would be to start building a personal brand and a strong online presence. A high school student could consider developing their own website/portfolio that includes example (how about that essay on climate change or the letter to the editor submitted to The Evanstonian?).

Another great “for now” idea is to explore opportunities for job shadowing and connecting with potential mentors – ETHS students can contact the College and Career Center and learn more about these opportunities via their SchooLinks account.

All-purpose skills for college and career readiness

One “for now” goal that is guaranteed to keep every young person’s post-high school options open regardless of their chosen career pathway is to develop key skills that all high school graduates should possess.

Below is a list of all-purpose skills that will provide them with a strong foundation in a variety of skills in order to be successful:

  • Communication skills – the ability to clearly and effectively express oneself when interacting with others (writing, speaking, and listening).
  • Problem-solving skills – the ability to use analytical and creative thinking to find solutions.
  • Time management skills – the ability to prioritize tasks and manage one’s time effectively.
  • Collaboration skills – the ability to operate well in a group to effectively accomplish tasks.
  • Adaptability – the ability to embrace and adjust to change.
  • Self-motivation – the ability to independently set and work toward goals.
  • Critical thinking – the ability to analyze and evaluate information and arguments objectively.
  • Creativity – the ability to think creatively and generate new ideas.
  • Digital literacy – the ability to use and understand technology and digital tools.
  • Interpersonal skills – the ability to build and maintain positive relationships with others in a variety of settings.

Helping young people navigate through high school and prepare for post-high school success is challenging in a world that feels out of our control, unpredictable and complicated. We can help by showing them the amazing array of meaningful and financially rewarding careers that await those who are prepared to pursue them. By starting with a “for now” direction and developing a strong set of all-purpose skills, every young adult can be college and career ready.

Shelley Gates, Ed.D., a longtime Evanston resident, served as chair of ETHS’ Career and Technical Education Department for 18 years.

Shelley Gates⁢⁢⁣⁤ ⁠

Shelley Gates, Ed.D., a longtime Evanston resident, served as chair of ETHS’ Career and Technical Education Department for 18 years.

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  1. This is a great article …. thanks Shelley! After spending the last number of years supporting post high school youth as they develop a career path without a 4 year degree, your article really resonates with me. Particularly concepts like a Middle Skills Pathway (which is what we try to do at the Youth Job Center), All Purpose Skills, and For Now goal setting. Thanks for writing and the work you do!