Reading, Writing, 'Rithmetic, and Zero About Jobs

Perhaps young people would be better served by having access to more job sampling opportunities.


Firefighter. Lion tamer. Nurse. Teacher. Cop.

Those are the careers most young people are familiar with. In a world where you can spend your life designing beer bottles, inspecting sewers, prepping cadavers, or programming robot dogs, you'd think we might spend a little more time introducing young people to the wide, wide world of work, instead of just leaving it all to Mike Rowe and his Dirty Jobs.

What we need is something beyond career day but a little less time-intensive than semesterlong internships. I propose Job Tourism, an idea I'm basically stealing from author David Epstein—and the U.S. Army.

In Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World (Macmillan), Epstein talks about the advantages reaped by folks who switch careers, or at least seriously pursue other interests beyond the field they're working in. In a chapter on job dissatisfaction, he homes in on the U.S. Army, which in the 1980s started hemorrhaging its best and brightest, including its West Point grads. Once these smart and driven folks had served the minimum time required, many of them were jumping ship (if I may mix my military metaphors). In desperation, the Army decided to try retention bonuses. In 2007–2008 it spent over half a billion dollars on these, offering lump sums to active duty officers commissioned between 1999 and 2005 if they'd stick around for three more years.

It didn't work. The officers who were going to leave left anyway. The ones who were going to stay just pocketed the perk.

When money didn't do the trick, the Army changed tactics. It started something called "talent-based branching." Each participant was rotated through about half a dozen departments. "And then," Epstein says, "they'd reflect on how it fit their interests and abilities," as would the Army. "The retention with people who go through talent-based branching has been way better without the retention bonuses, because they end up with a better match quality." Match quality, as you might guess, is the compatibility between the person and the job.

There were two revelations beyond this. First, Epstein says, "The cadets going through it were often really surprised by their own weaknesses. They thought they would be really good at things they weren't good at." That's a helpful bit of self-knowledge. On the flip side, the cadets also discovered new fields and talents. Ninety percent of them ended up changing one of their top two career preferences. These young people had been pretty clueless not just about the jobs out there but about which jobs they were best suited for.

Now think of the other 99 percent of American teens and 20-somethings trying to find their way. "How we learn to do and be is by paying attention to our social world," says social psychologist Debra Mashek, founder of Myco -Consulting. "It's limiting the individual's ability to fulfill their own purpose if they don't have a sense of what's out there, or what's -possible."

When I asked parents how their kids were getting exposed to potential careers, most said that sometime in middle or high school there was some sort of jobs day.

At her sons' school, says Andrea Mays, a professor of economics at California State University, Long Beach, it's Merchant Monday: Sixth-graders are assigned to one of the businesses on Main Street. One of her sons was placed in a Middle Eastern restaurant, where he got to pick mint leaves for the tea. The family still eats there 15 years later.

Lisa Avila, a Florida mom, still remembers the day a Navy pilot came to her high school to discuss his career: "He said women shouldn't be in the Navy, much less be pilots." She went on to join the Navy—and become a pilot.

Other parents mentioned school programs where community members teach electives such as cake decorating or forensic science. A few said their kids attend schools that offer training in specific trades. Many colleges encourage internships—a chance to try out a job over weeks or months. And some organizations are trying to widen the horizon. The Harraseeket Foundation, a Virginia-based nonprofit, gets community members to discuss their careers with young people and help them network.

Young people need more job sampling opportunities. While school is supposed to prepare them for the world, it mostly keeps them away from it.