Thursday, January 24, 2008

Helping Students Find Their Way

Seth Roberts quoting his friend on the value of helping high school and college students figure out what jobs suit them best:

I believe a large fraction of people around ages 16-22 are ignorant of what kinds of work environments and activities will make them happy and productive later in life. Current classroom-based training structures do not provide exposure to work environments. The cultural and social pressures from media, family and friends can be overwhelming and can often lead to people being very confused, and hence, making poor choices. I’ve seen that people tend to get very limited and highly biased information that leads to making training choices and work choices early in their life that are often not well matched for the person’s individual genius.

By mid 20’s and 30’s, getting out of these poor choices is extremely difficult, as financial requirements as one ages grow and available time to retrain diminishes. Expectations of experience grow as one gets older, and the neural ability to quickly learn and master new skills diminishes, especially much later, after 40 or 50 years. All of these factors point toward a critical need to have experienced, outside input into making early choices about career paths, and what types of experiences individuals would benefit from most.

Such advice is available, and can be found - but it is not commonly accepted that expert outside opinion is the best source for career and training choices for young people. Kids get it mostly from their parents and friends - neither of which are consistently accurate, trained in normal psychology, or unbiased in their assessments. While many schools have “guidance counselors”, I have seen most of the service offered as severely lacking (like much of public education) when compared with the needs of students, both in quality and quantity. I think there is are enormous unmet needs in many cultures, the US in particular, to provide more assistance to people in their late teens and college years to deeply explore what career options best fit their personality, and provide assessment and testing with definitive recommendations for majors, mentors, internships, and work choices.

Furthermore, when viewed on the societal level, there is an obvious argument that a society will function better when higher percentage of the population finds work/life situations that leave them happier and more productive. This I feel is even more important than providing education looking out on the 10-20 year technology horizon. In a world where most educational materials and social connections will be portable, open source, and available online - the problem will not be as much about getting information, skills, or training, but in individuals being tracked toward education options, career paths, and work environments that work best for them: a problem not easily solved with mass distribution of content or any technology solution.

Seth then adds:

This view arises partly from his own experience. He majored in Chemistry and Physics, then got a Ph.D. from Stanford in Biomedical Informatics. After working in that area for several years, he discovered that what he really enjoyed was building communities, and moved in that professional direction. Currently he is building an online community to share digital media content.

My story is not entirely different. I studied engineering and practiced it for years, never fully satisfied with the work I was doing. Along the way, I started working on my MBA which is where I "discovered" economics. I've been running towards it ever since.

I will say, had I not had some of the experiences I had (particularly traveling, but also business), I don't think I would have appreciated economics as much as I did when I first came across it. There is a lot of value in learning by doing. (See my post on Failing Forward for more on this.)

Still, if I wasn't single and without a mortgage when I discovered my love for economics, I probably would not have quit work to come back to school. My impression is that there could be non-trivial gains to productivity, individual happiness, and societal welfare if there were better methods of exposing students to realistic expectations of potential career options at an earlier stage. It just might improve their desire to learn too!

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