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Helping young adults make career choices

By Michael Ceo



How we earn a living is a crucial determining factor for satisfaction or frustration in life. Yet the process that leads most of us to decisions about work and career are far from clear and deliberate.


More commonly, we make educational or career decisions based on what our families expect or based on notions about ourselves and the work world that are fuzzy and not well thought through. The cost of mistakes can be high. Not only the rising cost of college tuition but also the more devastating loss of time, momentum and self-confidence can provide painful setbacks for both young people and parents alike. We have all known young adults who seem to flounder at the task of establishing themselves either in finding the right college major or hopping form job to job without direction. The fruits of successful life-work planning, as I call it, are wonderfully evident when our work really reflects our passion in life.


In looking at career decision-making, there are some initial points on which to focus. Life-work planning is a process that occurs over time and involves several aspects: Learning about one’s self, gathering information about the work world and putting into practice a plan of exploration. Trial and error is perfectly OK because knowing what we don’t want to do in life can be a valuable and motivational lesson. As a process, our choices about work evolve over time as our interests, values and needs change. People today typically have four careers over the course of their lives. I am always intrigued hearing about people who give up a seemingly successful career to make a mid-course adjustment more in line with what they really want out of life. Since our career choices are a reflection of how we see ourselves, self- understanding is most important. Our values, which represent what is important to us in our work or in our lives, are like the stars that guided the ancient mariners on the high seas. So, clarifying and defining what is uniquely important to us is a crucial part of the process. Work values may include making money, helping society, creativity, teamwork, building competencies, flexible work schedule, vacation time or simply having fun and being challenged. Other values that influence choices may involve simplicity, more time with family or a greater sense of control over our lives. Making choices in life that reflect our values is very much a success strategy. Living our values leads to satisfaction in life.


The following is a vocational personality framework for understanding how we look at ourselves in relation to work interests. Try and identify yourselves or your children in reference to three of the five vocational personality themes outlined below. Then put them in rank order, most to least relevant. This model is especially useful because it also provides a framework for categorizing the work world as well as specific occupations. The task is to match up your vocational personality themes with a career that corresponds to your interests. These vocational personality themes are the basis for a widely used and reliable career interest inventory. I sometimes utilize this profile with my young counseling clients who are wanting a career direction or who need to make decisions about college majors. The profile involves 300 questions and generates a computerized and personalized career “road map.” The challenge then is to try and integrate this personalized map into an exploratory career plan that reflects the person’s goals, educational orientation and values. The five themes are as follows:


Realistic: These are people who like to work with their hands and with tools to build things, such as radios or cabinets and to fix things. They prefer to work outside, alone or with one or two people than with a large group. Realistic people describe themselves as having good physical skills, as being practical and rugged, preferring to work with things rather than people. Individuals with these characteristics often become mechanics; skilled trades people, farmers, military officers, foresters, park rangers, etc.


Social: People who have interests in social occupations tend to be very concerned about other people and like to help them solve personal problems, educate or provide service. They see themselves as popular and as good leaders and have little interest in working with machines and prefer being with other people. They describe themselves as thoughtful, patient and generous. Social occupations might include social worker, childcare, teacher, counselor and health-care providers.


Investigative: These people like activities and occupations that are related to science and mathematics. They prefer to work by themselves or with one or two people. They like to solve problems, and they do not like to work where there are a lot of rules. They enjoy working with ideas and enjoy finding answers and solutions. They describe themselves as achieving, confident, curious, inventive and scientific. They prefer occupations such as laboratory research, medical technician, computer programmer and dental hygienist.


Artistic: These people prefer jobs and work settings that offer opportunities for self-expression. They tend to work alone and get very involved. They enjoy doing such things as writing, drawing and sketching as well as the performing arts. Artistic people describe themselves as imaginative, original and expressive. Occupations they prefer include author, artist, newspaper reporter, photographer, interior designer and graphic artist.


Enterprising: These people are good at talking and using words to persuade other people. They often work in sales, and they are clever at thinking of ways to lead or convince people. They see themselves as energetic, enthusiastic, ambitious, competitive, outspoken and confident. They value power, status and wealth. They choose occupations in business, law, real estate, advertising or hospitality management.


Conventional: These people prefer activities and jobs in which they know exactly what is expected of them and what they are supposed to do. They work well in large offices and do not seek leadership positions. They see themselves as stable, moderate, conforming, cautious and dependable. They tend toward the following occupations: bookkeeping, Information technology, bank teller, accountant, administrative assistant and secretary.


Use this model to generate discussion about yourselves and your children or your students. In seeing yourself in reference to three themes, you talk in terms of being an SAE who would prefer an occupation such as elementary school teacher. This work would be suited for someone who is primarily social, then artistic, then enterprising. A lawyer would be EAS, primarily, enterprising, then artistic, then social. A physical therapist would be investigative, social and realistic or ISR. Having worked as director of counseling at a college, I would offer fun group workshops for students who would get people talking and exploring themselves in reference to this model. Establishing a career information library based on these career themes makes it easy to research occupational information and to formulate a plan for further career exploration


Once you have identified yourself or your son or daughter in reference to these themes, the next step is to begin a process to explore the work world. This exploration process can take many forms including learning about occupations by looking them up in the “Dictionary of Occupational Titles” in the library, talking with people in careers that interest you or finding summer internships or part-time work within these work settings. Firsthand work experience as part of your career exploration plan will provide a valuable opportunity to try it on for size and see what people are like who work in this field. It also looks great on a resume.


Loudoun County’s highly successful “Leadership in the Law” program, pioneered by Judge Thomas Horn and the County Bar Association, is an outstanding example of a career exploration program for young people. This “law camp” offers high school students a firsthand experience of what practicing law is really like. Other such career exploration programs are sorely needed and should be developed with local organizations and businesses, especially in health care, law enforcement, information technology, engineering and the sciences.


Given the sophisticated nature of careers in the Washington area and the educational demands placed on its workforce, more investment needs to be made in career planning for our youth. I would propose that an office of career education be established by the county to offer training and resources to schools and youth groups. Programs and opportunities that allow students to explore real work settings in our community would vastly enrich young lives and confer a much needed sense of direction and personal power on our young people.