That question was posed to my daughter and other eighth graders at our local middle school’s Career Day program.
She and 300 other kids were brought into the gymnasium to learn more about careers they could pursue as adults. I was there to speak about my career in journalism, and I was joined by parents who were prepared to influence the next generation of engineers, sales representatives, accountants, real estate agents, personal trainers and chiropractors.
Welcome to the world of white-collar expectations.
Nearly all of the students in our school come from middle class and upper-middle class backgrounds. Most have parents who went to college and expect their children to go as well, even though their children may have different abilities or aspirations. Few of these parents are able to spend much time with their children because of career or social “demands,” and sadly, the kids are farmed out to teachers, coaches and after-school tutors under the guise of “I’m doing this to help my child get ahead.”
Others want our children to get ahead, too. That’s why Texas has our kids have to choose a career path in eighth grade – college bound or vocational training. There is no mix; it must be one or the other.
No pressure, kids.
The boys who wanted to be mechanics
The college-prep company coordinating our event gave each parent a large sign that listed our career and the college major the kids would need to earn to do our particular work.
A swarm of boys made a bee line for the sign that read “Mechanical Engineering.” They chatted with each other about engines, car computer systems and their grandfathers’ tools while waiting for the volunteer to come to the table. Their faces fell when a mom walked up to them and started speaking about how they needed to take advanced math and science classes in high school to prepare for this work.
One brave boy interrupted her.
“Aren’t you a mechanic?” he asked.
The mom recognized the young man’s confusion and disappointment.
“No, ” she said sadly. “I’m a mechanical ENGINEER. I don’t fix things; I design them.”
The boys sank in their chairs and tuned out as she spoke for an additional 10 minutes about ACTs, SATs and five-year degree programs.
Nah, you don’t need a degree to be successful
The large sign above my table read, “Journalism and English degree.” I used a Sharpie to cross out the degree information and wrote in, “Desire to make a difference.”
The kids who approached my table seemed a bit uncomfortable. They were required to fill out a worksheet on each career presentation they attended. The first question was about degree requirements.
Reading from the worksheet, a girl asked, “What degree do you need to be a journalist?”
The others in her group readied their pencils for the response.
“You can do it without a degree,” I said. “I have a degree in journalism, but some of the world’s best writers never went to college. ”
The students were confused. I grabbed the worksheet and quickly rattled off the information they were required to get from each speaker.
- Classes you have to take in college? You need to be proficient in grammar and you have to love to write. You should also have the guts and desire to make a difference.
- Salary range? Slightly above minimum wage when you first start out. You might be able to buy a reliable used car after five years – if you don’t take out any student loans.
- Work schedule? You have to be available 24/7; you never know when news breaks.
- Things could do now to prepare? Write. Follow the news. Pay attention in English class. Learn how to listen. Read newspapers and great books. Be a teenager.
It was then time to get real.
“Some of you may go to college, and some may choose trade school, military service or other routes,” I said. “All are good options.”
They mumbled among themselves and pooh-poohed the very thought of non-college options.
I then told them about my cousin, Jason, who worked as an apprentice with a heating and air conditioning company after he graduated from high school. He now runs his own company, employs 20 people, and his take-home pay is at least 10 times higher than mine.
I told them about Luis, the son of immigrants who runs a successful local restaurant.
And Tom, a gifted carpenter who makes custom furniture.
And Sue Ann, a talented seamstress who opened her own sewing shop.
And Greg, a former paratrooper who now works in sports marketing.
The kids smiled politely and then headed off to listen to the next parent talk about accounting careers.
We value your feedback about Career Day
After all the children were gone, the coordinator gave each parent a survey to get our feedback about Career Day. I skipped all of the white bread how-did-we-do questions and used my Sharpie to write in, “There should have been craftsmen, mechanics, soldiers and small business owners here.” He seemed surprised by my response.
“Don’t you want to see every child be successful?” he asked me.
I handed him my edited sign with its “desire to make a difference”message and walked out the door.
Is a college degree the only path to a successful future? Share your thoughts below.