Parents can help, hinder career choices


Alvin announced that he planned to make cheese the focus of his life. He owned cheese-making equipment and held tasting parties in his dorm room.

The career research assignment for his intro to business class was a breeze. Alvin had been researching cheese-related career and business opportunities for a few years. He was learning to speak French and planned to work in a fromagerie in France for the summer. Alvin was a hoot and a half and needed no career advice help.

In each class I taught there were a couple of students like Alvin. They had interests that could lead to careers and they made good use of the Internet to research career possibilities.

When I taught my first intro to business class and assigned a career research project, I was surprised to discover that many students saw the Internet more as a source of entertainment than as a source of information.

Want to know what it takes to run a successful pizzeria? You can go to the National Association of Pizzeria Operators website and browse the articles or give someone a call.

What does a career in industrial design look like? The Industrial Design Society of America website has plenty of information, internship listings, job openings and phone numbers of professionals willing to talk with students.

This is a tremendous gift to every parent. A parent’s instinct is to protect and prevent his or her child from making costly or painful mistakes. So it makes sense to react with alarm if a daughter announces that she wants to run an ecotourism business leading expeditions into the jungles of Belize. You want to point out all the possible dangers and how unlikely it is that she will make money doing such a “crazy thing.”

The other option is to ask her to have a gentle horse ready for your visits and then suggest she use the Internet to find someone in that business whom she can talk to by phone or email. She will hear about the difficult customers, the effects weather has on the business and the lack of cable TV.

She will come away excited and eager to learn more — or she will cross it off her list. But she will not be angry with you. You were supportive and helpful. If she is determined to work in ecotourism, you can help her prepare carefully or make her want to prove you wrong.

A willingness to do just a little research can save parents a ton of money.

Jeff, for example, had switched majors six times in three years before he took my class. He was stuck in defeat mode before he even started researching career options. It took me two painful hours of prodding and pleading to get him to tell me that he wanted to be a landscape architect. He loved plants and designing outdoor spaces, but he told me that he couldn’t do that for a career. His parents had told him gardening was a nice hobby but he couldn’t support a family doing it. They wanted him in a profession that required a suit and tie.

When he wasn’t at college Jeff was installing irrigation systems for friends and family, restoring neglected gardens and taking care of his grandparents’ gardens. He didn’t see it as work. As we talked plants and drip systems he was relaxed and happy and volunteered to come help me solve my gardening problems. Jeff showed me the photos of his grandparents’ garden that he kept on his PC. He was proud of his work.

It took about an hour of my time to find two landscape architects in Jeff’s hometown of Vancouver, B.C., willing to talk with Jeff. It took them a few minutes to convince Jeff that they and their families lived comfortable lives. One of them offered to take him on as an assistant over the summer to let him see what the job is really like.

Jeff and his parents had been arguing about his grades, his classes and his career direction for more than three years. They had spent many thousands of dollars forcing him into classes that he had no interest in.

If every young person were like Alvin, the cheese fanatic, I would have had a lot more free time. And if I could solve every student’s problems as easily as I did Jeff’s, I would have something to brag about.

But for every Jeff or Alvin there was a Natalie. She was a college sophomore when she told me that she planned to be a translator at the United Nations. I thought this was great; a clear career path and one that is easy to research. But when I asked her what language she spoke, Natalie answered, “Just English.”

I knew where I would be spending my time.

Virginia Detweiler provides human resources services and management training to businesses in southeastern Washington. Email questions at Those used will be edited to remove information that would identify the sender. She can also be reached at 509-529-1910


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