The launch: Parents prepare for child's transition to independence

Published: Sunday, Oct. 14 2012 3:00 p.m. MDT

Susan and Roger Morgan with their daughters, Holly, Katie and Brooke. The Southlake, Texas, family puts a high premium on education and job readiness. (Nathan Petty) Susan and Roger Morgan with their daughters, Holly, Katie and Brooke. The Southlake, Texas, family puts a high premium on education and job readiness. (Nathan Petty)

Brooke Morgan's career plans grew out of the balance beam and vault. The 17-year-old from Southlake, Texas, plans to become a physical therapist, to help others recover from injuries like she had as a competitive gymnast.

Jared Dickson, 17, of Oak Harbor, Wash., plans to become a dentist, but right now he's working on scholarships to help pay for college.

As these two stand on the brink of adulthood, they have concrete ideas about what they need to do next to reach their goals. Many parents and children pondering what comes after high school don't have a plan. Not planning, experts agree, is bad news for future success, even though plans may change. But how does one prepare and what's realistic in a tight and changing job market, where continued education and training are more important than they have ever been?

Randy and Lisa Dickson of Oak Harbor, Wash., pose in a park with their kids. Their son, Jared, will soon go to college, and making sure he's ready is important to his folks. (Family photo) Randy and Lisa Dickson of Oak Harbor, Wash., pose in a park with their kids. Their son, Jared, will soon go to college, and making sure he's ready is important to his folks. (Family photo)

A recent Gallup poll found a very high number of parents think their children will graduate from high school; 96 percent strongly or mostly "know" it. That's higher than the national reality, 73 percent, according to Education Week. Those same parents, though, are far less sure their children will find a good job later — 38 percent are certain and 28 percent nearly so.

"Whatever a high school diploma meant when today's parents were in high school, it doesn't mean that any more," said Jeff Livingston, college and career readiness expert for McGraw-Hill Education. It's the beginning of education, not the end.

The starting point

A diploma used to signify readiness for a job that didn't require specialized training. "Employers don't believe it means that any more," he said.

To succeed, families need a plan, even if it will change as career goals do. Specific beats vague to smithereens. “ ‘Get a job and get a couple of years' experience and maybe go to college sometime' is not a plan," Livingston said. “ ‘Work at the factory down the street that will hire with a high school diploma, then go to state university' is a plan."

Students and parents often engage in magic thinking, he said. That describes the girl who wants to be a lawyer but doesn't know she'll need both undergraduate and law school degrees. Figuring out the steps is largely up to families, Livingston said. "Resource-deprived schools have less and less capacity to do that."

Meanwhile, the economic downturn is teaching a generation of graduates that "people without plans tend to be people who aren't doing anything," he said. It's a jobless and joyless situation.

Besides that, some 17-year-olds are treated like they are 9, which doesn't help, he said. Children need responsibility and guidance to assume it. "The families that are the least happy are those who allow their kids to think of the first year of college as 13th grade. It's a step on the path toward independence or it's not. Have conversations with students as young as 14 or 15 so they begin thinking in subconscious ways, 'it's my responsibility, not that of my mother.’ ”

Daughters Sierra, 21, Emily, 19, and Amy, 17, have been blessed to always find a job, said Rima Pfeil of Plainfield, Ind. Sierra and Emily followed high school with college, as will Amy and youngest sister Marina, 15. They know how to work and to network. Pfeil and her husband, Robert, gave them chores and responsibility and taught budgeting. They know college is their best bet for getting ahead.

Three kinds of skills

Success requires academic, technical and employability skills, said Steve DeWitt, spokesman for the Association for Career and Technical Education in Alexandria, Va. Everyone needs a foundation in literacy, math and science, which most schools provide, but kids must also see how to use that knowledge in real situations they might face. They often lack employability skills like ethics, working in teams, being on time. "It's not stuff you can test in a regular classroom."

A good education might land a job, but those who can't communicate, work with others and show creativity probably won't keep one.

Parents and policymakers often neglect career development and exploration, said DeWitt. In middle school, he believes kids should be exposed to careers and what they mean, seeing people with good work ethics and knowing that's how one supports a family. Should a child express interest in health care, for instance, discuss the steps to such a career.

"Just about every single student needs to plan on some kind of further education after high school," said Livingston. "The thought that a diploma is a terminal degree is 45 years out of date. That's hard for some families to accept."

Not locked in

It doesn't mean kids in middle school have to pick a career. In college, there's time to change. "There's a difference between not being certain precisely what career path you want to follow and not having imagined any career path," Livingston said.

Today's kids will have many careers, experts agree. "Not just doing similar things at different places," he said. "Completely different careers are going to be common for them."

Programs must reflect evolving job needs and universal skills, DeWitt said. Those who fare best are those with an idea of what they want to do and who get targeted education for that. Kids who have work experience, though limited, have a leg up; it demonstrates employability skills. "It's fine to explore" and change your mind, he said. "But obtain work skills that translate across jobs."

Like Brooke Morgan, Holly Morgan has a plan. At 15, she participates in the Miss America program's teen division. The youths must have a platform, a talent and be articulate, said Roger Morgan, her dad. "It really requires that girls have thought through what want to do when they grow up," he said.

Holly is moving toward being a wedding planner, said Roger Morgan, who recently left a career to start his own pet-products business.

That his oldest daughters know what they want to do is not happenstance. He and his wife, Susan, went to college and expect their kids to. They have meticulously demonstrated good work ethics and decision-making. Having a framework for that early is important.

"In business and in life, the way to make the best decision is by experience," he said. Kids lack experience. So the Morgans taught theirs to reach out to people with qualities and jobs and interests to which they're attracted. If you think you want to be in a career, find people and ask for advice, he said. They have been "learning from an early age to start building a set of relationships they can use as proxy when they make decisions."

Jared Dickson is a good student who plays sports, though he's not a born athlete. "That's not his route in" to college, said his mom, who has a college degree. So does his dad, a teacher. Randy Dickson also runs a tree business; his children often go along to earn money and have learned to work hard.

Often scholarships are given for other things than academics, and Jared is well-rounded. He's a Scout, a Big Brother and more. If he doesn't understand something at school, he asks his teachers. Little sisters Allison and Lainey, 14 and 13, are learning the same lessons.

Livingston encourages students monthly to fill in blanks. They can change, but it sharpens focus and brings goals to mind. "When I am 25, I am going to live in (blank), paying rent or living in (blank) and working at (blank)," he said.

It's all about the plan.

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