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.

NEXT: Brickbat: Collective Guilt

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  1. When I was a kid I started by mowing grass and shoveling snow. Then got a job cleaning out the local carwash stalls once a week. Worked at a gas station in high school. Two summers I worked maintenance at an apartment complex my sister and her husband managed in Warren Michigan doing painting, plumbing and such. Then again, I didn’t have a smart phone to take up all my time.

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  3. While school is supposed to prepare them for the world, it mostly keeps them away from it.

    Who told you that? School is designed to keep kids away from the world so they don’t compete with the adults in the job market. The more abstract the bullshit you teach them, the less prepared for the real world they are and the longer it takes them to learn an employable skill. And that suits most people just fine – keep these kids helpless children until they’re about thirty and I can reach retirement age before they come looking to take my job.

    1. I prefer them to be working, and forking over for my social security and medicare.
      Since Biden ducks payroll taxes on his book deals, it takes two graduating classes to take up the slack.

    2. That’s a deeply, deeply cynical thing to say. And I am distressed that I have not the slightest evidence to contradict that statement.

  4. Firefighter. Lion tamer. Nurse. Teacher. Cop.

    Yes, once upon a time we encouraged kids to imagine and even pretend to be different people, as in different professions and work roles.

    Now we encourage kids to be different people, as in genders and races. What is more fun? Pretending to be a nurse or even a lion tamer? Or pretending to be a transgender woman with a boob job, or even a centaur?

    1. Centaur. Totally!

  5. prepping cadavers


  6. There are really only two important skills that schools can teach: how to read and write effectively and math. They should be free to read Shakespeare, history, different genders, cultures etc on their own time IF they are interested, and if they really want to become a scholar at something, then they can go to a liberal arts college.

    1. The problem is that public schools, overall, don’t even do a good job at teaching reading and math.
      Arkansas just passed legislation forbidding its schools from using debunked “three-cueing” methods to teach kids to read. A competent school system would have rejected ineffective curriculum and would not have to be forced to do so by state government.

      1. Tell me about it! We pulled our sons out of the Public school here because they are still teaching the same lousy way as when I was a kid in the 1970s and early 80s-even using purple mimeographed worksheets! The kids were bored out of their mind

        They are now in a parochial school that teaches a classic curriculum and I have never seen them so excited to learn

    2. Basic economics would be an important skill set for schools to teach. Too bad no high school i know of teaches it.

      (I imagine a curriculum that consists of markets (supply and demand curve stuff), business operation and decision-making, and government policy (hopefully from a critical perspective). Throw some basic accounting, investing, and retirement planning at the end to cover some important stuff that’s economics adjacent).

      If the average person didn’t have the economic literacy of a three year old, socialism would seem a lot less appealing.

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  8. Politically Power-Mad people “planning” everyone else’s lives for them while being ignorant and pretending they know what’s best even though they wouldn’t even be getting a paycheck if it wasn’t collected by Gov Gun-Point threats and many who have never received/proven their value in any way other than Gov-Gun threats.

    Get Gov away from education and the natural laws of supply and demand would perfectly correct the rest. The *actual* ‘poor’ can visit their local welfare office for living assistance to gain free-market and rightfully in-demand education.

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