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Helping teens choose a career path

For many teens and their parents, figuring out a career path early on has become increasingly important. Some are turning to counseling services like CareerVision.
Image: John Cameron
John Cameron, 17, of Rolling Meadows, Ill., reads a booklet from a counseling service outlining his career options and aptitude test results.Laura Cameron

At age 16, John Cameron was at a career crossroads.

He was interested in becoming a surgeon, but engineering was also an attractive option.

As a junior in high school last year, he started to feel the pressure to choose a direction. He feared he might end up floundering when he went to college, jumping from one major to another. This thought worried him, and it also worried his mother, Laura, who already had one kid in college.

“Due to the cost of college today, I didn’t want him on the five- or six-year plan, not knowing what he wanted to do,” she says. 

She decided to be proactive. She took John to a career-counseling firm that would test his skills and help him choose the best career path.

For $800, John was put through a battery of aptitude tests spanning two days, everything from cognitive reading to dexterity. After the results were calculated, he and his mom sat down for a nearly two-hour rundown on his performance with a counselor at CareerVision, a career counseling and assessment organization in Glen Ellyn, Ill.

Would he make a great surgeon? Or was he best suited for engineering? Maybe he was cut out for something totally different.

For many teens and their parents, figuring out a career path early on has become increasingly important. Some parents are turning to counseling services such as CareerVision for their teens, sometimes as young as 13, to help give their kids a career reality check.

Some critics warn it’s yet another example of how we’re putting too much pressure on children to grow up fast. But parents argue they’re just looking out for their families’ futures.

Honing a teen's career goals
Tough economic times and the skyrocketing cost of college tuition has put the fire under many parents to help their kids’ figure out career goals so they don’t waste a ton of mom and dad’s money in college — and to get them on the road to making a good paycheck in their early 20s.

“The cost of college and indebtedness incurred has caught the eyes of parents as their job security is challenged, and managing career transitions is a highly valued skill,” says Rich Feller, counseling and career development
professor at Colorado State University. “No longer can the majority of students with ‘any’ degree find an easy match to specific jobs or management training programs. For the first time, the college degree premium has been challenged.”

Sean Covey, author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens,” adds: “As the global marketplace evolves, suddenly our kids are not just competing against neighbors for good jobs, but competing against someone in China and India.”

Often, he says, kids 13 to 18 don’t listen to their parents, and a counselor can help set them straight. “I think it can hone their plans,” he says.

Indeed, John Cameron, now 17 and a senior in high school, believes CareerVision helped him.

Some of the specific career suggestions he received from the counselor included: biomedical engineer, physician, civil/structural engineer, college professor and meteorologist.

What about surgeon?

“I didn’t do too well on the finger dexterity portion of test,” says Cameron. “The counselor said I probably wouldn’t be able to be a surgeon. I didn’t have the hands for it. But she suggested I look into dermatology, or internal medicine. Something along those lines.”

‘Hyper-focus’ on success
These types of specific suggestions to impressionable teens worries Aaron Cooper, a clinical psychologist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University and author of "I Just Want My Kids To Be Happy! Why You Shouldn’t Say It, Why You Shouldn’t Think It, What You Should Embrace Instead.”

“If this is done before college, it forces kids to narrow their focus of possibilities a little early in the game,” he says. “What’s wrong with going to college and exploring everything that comes across your desk without having some tunnel vision imposed on you?”

It’s all part of a “hyper-focus” on success that so many have in our society today, he says.

“Parents are outsourcing so much of what used to be part of natural process,” he says. “These were things that were done by the student with help from mom and dad, and maybe some help from a high school counselor.”

Parents, he adds, are misguided in thinking happiness will come from some perfect match between a kid and a particular career.

Some teens do find a profound passion or interest early on, says Madeline Levine, author of “The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids.” “But the rest of us slog around for awhile trying to figure out what we’re interested in,” she says.

Instead of career counseling or aptitude testing, Levine recommends that parents genuinely ask their kids what they like to do and talk to them about their options. And expose them to many different experiences. “Take them to the museum, the theater. Show them the world and let them see what they want,” she says.

‘Why am I learning this?’
For advocates of early testing and counseling, it’s about making kids understand why they need to learn the things they’re being taught in school. “You hear students say all the time, ‘Why am I learning this?,” says Peg Hendershot, director of Career Vision. “There’s a disconnect there, and they need to start understanding how their education prepares them to be successful in the world.”

She believes there’s nothing wrong with some general exploration of career goals as early as 12 years old.

“People want to get a head start in the world,” adds Richard Hoffman, director of the Houston office of the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation, an aptitude testing company for teens and adults. Helping them get a better understanding of their “natural gifts” can only help get them on the right track, he says.

If you wait until you’re 22 to start a career in music, says Irvin Shambaugh, president of Dallas-based testing firm AIMS, it’s difficult to catch up to a person who’s been specializing in that career for years. “Mozart started at age 4,” he points out.

Carol Christen, co-author of “What Color is Your Parachute? For Teens,” has no major issues with this type of testing, but she says all the information kids get out of these sessions should be taken as a small piece of a career exploration puzzle.

She suggests parents consider free or less expensive online tests that could also provide some valuable information. (Check out for some options.)

After a teen develops some ideas of what he wants to do, both parent and child need to sit down and figure out how different professions jive with the economy and whether it’s a wise decision to pursue a job that is becoming extinct, for example.

“Also, kids should talk to people who are doing the work they’re interested in,” Christen says.

So what does the future hold for John Cameron now that surgeon is off the table? “I’m definitely looking into engineering or architecture,” he says, adding that he is now in the process of filling out college applications for Notre Dame, University of Michigan, Northwestern and University of Illinois.

Cameron doesn’t look at the counseling he received as someone telling him what to be or what not to be when he grows up. He saw it more as guidance.

“I was torn between a few careers,” he says, “but hearing someone else say engineering was a reaffirmation.”