by Frank Burtnett, Ed.D., Guest Blogger
Remember when you were a kid and a family member, friend or teacher asked “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Guess what? More adults than you might imagine are stilling looking for the answer to that question and they’re a long way past being a kid.
Let’s begin with the premise that this ten word question may not be appropriate for anyone in their youth or young adult years. When an answer is educed, it represents a narrowing or selection that may be unsuitable for the time or life stage. Choosing a future career, an occupation that will span the next 30, 40 or more years of your life has a lot to do with exposures and opportunities to explore. Many children, youth and some young adults haven’t had the appropriate experiences yet.
When I was engaged in my counseling studies at George Washington University and became interested in the career development process, a wise professor suggested the “What do you want to be” question might be the most inappropriate question one might ask, especially of youth and young adults whose life and educational experiences are still in a state of emergence. He was suggesting that in most cases, the person being questioned knew too little to respond appropriately.
Back in the days when the U.S. Department of Labor (USDL) published the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT), that document referenced literally thousands of occupations that are performed in the American workplace. Granted many were similar to each other (e.g., secretary, administrative assistant, personal assistant, etc.), but nevertheless the DOT was an intimidating document to peruse.
Today, the USDL Bureau of Labor Statistics does an excellent job of keeping the nation informed about workplace opportunities via the Occupational Outlook Handbook. The profiles featured there cover hundreds of occupations and offer occupational descriptions, work environment summaries and compensation information for each occupation. Each profile also offers employment projections for each occupation for the 2010–20 decade.
Process, Not an Event
A second premise for readers is that the choosing of a career should be considered a process and not an event—a point in time when you decide to plunge headfirst into the preparation for and eventual transition to a career. Tied to this premise is the thought that choosing a career is not a singular happening, but rather one that may be revisited, once, twice or many times before an individual achieves career success or satisfaction.
Often it’s not the occupation or career the individual should be asked to pinpoint, but rather the general field (i.e., health and medicine, banking and finance, communications, engineering, etc.) or a workplace setting or culture (i.e., hospital, wealth management firm, laboratory, or retail establishment). These are good places from which good searches are launched. Numerous human resources studies have suggested that the more an employee is engaged in her or his work, the more likely she or he will be satisfied. Engagement is not a function of the occupation, but one of the workplace culture or environment.
Impossible to Answer
A third proposition to consider is that the question is impossible for some to answer. In her book, Now You See It, Cathy Davidson, Distinguished Professor and Director of the Futures Initiative at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York cites USDL statistics to suggest that 65 percent of today’s kids will end up doing work that hasn't been invented yet. If the workplace is changing that dramatically, how can anyone possibly answer the “what do you want to be” question?
Finally let me speak to the matter that some people find themselves in a career situation they find less than satisfactory or intolerable. People don’t always need to change careers to achieve satisfaction and fulfillment—they may simply need to move to another work station. It’s not the work that they are doing—it’s the place where they are doing it.
Addressing Career Errors
In my book, Career Errors: Straight Talk About the Steps and Missteps of Career Development (published by Rowman & Littlefield), I devote a considerable amount of attention to the career development process and job search process. I examine 25 errors that people make in the quest for career satisfaction and success—the least of which is learning about opportunities and moving positively toward work that is consistent with one’s aptitudes, achievements, interests, values and lifestyle preferences.
Regardless of when they occur, career errors can be alleviated or eliminated with dedicated attention and behavioral change. The earlier those mistakes are detected, the sooner a corrective path can be put into place. Individuals who find themselves in a career place not of their liking should also consider the use of allies as they consider alternatives and move forward. Professional counselors exist in educational institutions, community agencies, employee assistance programs and private practice environments that are attuned to these issues and ready to assist. When making career or job changes, the assistance of professionally credentialed recruiters from the search and staffing industry can often provide invaluable service.
Then you may find yourself in the place “you wanted to be in when you grew up.”
Dr. Frank Burtnett is an author, consultant and trainer who is headquartered in Rockport, Maine and Springfield, Virginia. He has earned the National Certified Counselor (NCC) and National Career Counselor (NCCC) credentials of the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) and is a registered counselor (RC# 2478) in the state of Maine. He frequently speaks and trains on the subject of career development and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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