Parents as career counselors

In my work as a UW-Madison career counselor, I spend every day helping adults plan for their future. Sometimes they ask me how they can provide similar counseling for their own kids.
I tell them that they’re more influential than they realize. With a little forethought, parents can create an effective plan for setting children on the path to a satisfying career.

Moira Kelley
Kelley: Parents are more influential than they realize.
“Those who study career planning have found that parents not only have the fullest understanding of their child’s interests, abilities and goals, but also have the greatest influence on the occupational choices made by young adults,” says John Pritchett, career development services coordinator at Waukesha County Technical College.
Even when your kids are in preschool, you can start engaging them about work roles in general. Talk about workers you see on a daily basis and about the value of all work. Explain your own job and how you ended up in your current position.
Since families are such a big influence on career choice, children benefit from creating an occupational family tree. Get them involved by having them interview relatives about their work.

Career pathways

When kids are in fourth, fifth or sixth grade, it’s time to help them explore how their own interests translate into careers. If they like math, for instance, jobs in engineering or accounting are obvious possibilities, but you can introduce them to resources that will help them expand their options.
A good way to start this conversation is helping them explore the website Career Pathways, which will show how their interests and skills relate to career clusters.
Once they’ve identified desirable fields, help your child look into job shadowing, volunteer work and enrichment classes to test out the options.
When kids reach high school, the next step is finding a part-time job. Work experience of any kind is valuable in introducing them to the demands—and pleasures—of employment. Achieving a dream career is a process, and even a less-than-ideal first job is a rung on the ladder.
“A part-time job can help students develop skills they’ll take with them no matter what path they choose beyond high school,” says Pritchett. “A work ethic and communication and teamwork skills are what today’s employers are looking for.”

Post-high school options

At this point parents should start exploring post-high school options, from four-year universities to technical colleges to apprenticeships. Don’t forget to check in with your child’s teachers and school counselors, who have the relevant resources at their fingertips.
It’s also important to model a balanced lifestyle for our children. When Pritchett works with parents and kids, he asks them to share the words that come to mind when they think about success. Usually their answers include job satisfaction, earnings, and job security. But a career is more than just what we do to earn a living. It incorporates everything that provides us with meaning and fulfillment, including family, hobbies, health and fitness, community service, and spirituality. Parents want their children to find success in career and life, so it’s good to take a holistic view when talking with kids about success.
Research shows that our interests don’t fully form until we’re in our mid-20s, so don’t worry if kids don’t have a definite plan when they graduate high school. The key is providing guidance and encouraging exploration so your child will have the skills to make good career decisions over a lifetime.
Moira Kelley is a senior career counselor in UW-Madison’s Division of Continuing Studies. She can be reached at mkelley@dcs.wisc.edu. For more information, see continuingstudies.wisc.edu/advising or call 608-263-6960. 
A version of this article originally appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal.