High school is a time of pep rallies, prom and teenage rebellion. It's also a time when students start making decisions about getting into college or pursuing postsecondary education. Yet perhaps they should be thinking even further ahead to their careers.
While many people consider college as preparation for the real world, the decisions made during high school can have the biggest impact on their career success.
"The problem for many students, and even parents, is that they fail to think of high-school education as an investment good," according to the book "College Majors Handbook with Real Career Paths and Payoffs."
"Despite the fact that they can receive a free high-school education that will cost taxpayers an average of about $40,000 over four years, nearly one in three students won't graduate ... The gap in labor market success between those who choose to finish high school and those who drop out is large and has risen sharply over time."
The book provides insight into the four key issues that need to be addressed in high school to help set students up for career success.
1. Basic skills and economic success
According to the book, access to employment has become strongly connected with the attainment of basic skills such as reading, writing and mathematics. "Firms are more likely to employ and try to retain and pay a higher annual salary to those college graduates with the strongest basic skills than to those graduates with the same degree level but lower basic skill proficiencies."
The book notes that workers who have high basic skills levels benefit in a variety of ways, including:
- Increased chance of being hired
- More hours of work over the year
- Higher hourly or annual earnings
- Increased benefits offerings, such as health insurance
- Greater employment stability
- Better upward mobility
- Increased chances of employer-supported training
"The most rapidly expanding industries in the U.S. are dominated by occupations that require strong basic skills. If students fail to develop these skills by the end of high school, they will essentially be locked out of access to the best employment opportunities."
2. Investing in work experience
Many high-school students consider an after-school job as a way to make some extra cash. Yet working during high school pays off in many other ways.
"The gains to students working in high school go well beyond the earnings they generate for themselves and their families," the book notes. "Working at an early age is a developmental activity akin to developing basic skills or occupational proficiencies in a school setting."
According to research cited in the book, high-school seniors who worked 20 hours per week had annual earnings as young adults that were 25 to 30 percent higher than those seniors who didn't work. Much of this is due to the soft skills learned on the job. The skills that are developed -- willingness to learn, respectfulness toward other workers or supervisors, strong work ethic, capability to communicate effectively, the ability to follow simple work rules such as punctuality -- are all characteristics that employers look for in job candidates.
3. Deciding to pursue higher education
The decisions high-school students make about their education cause a ripple effect throughout the rest of their lives. If a high-school student doesn't have a foundation of basic skills, it can cause him to fall behind, making him more likely to drop out of high school. If he drops out of high school, he won't have access to a college education. If he doesn't receive a college education, he may have a harder time finding employment or securing higher-paying jobs.
Pay levels can also vary based on how much higher learning is obtained. As the book explains, graduates of two-year degree programs earn 22 percent more per year than high-school graduates with no degree. Bachelor's degree holders earn about 66 percent more per year than their high-school graduate counterparts.
4. Developing and investing in occupational skills
Although majors are determined once a student is in college, decisions such as the kinds of pre-college courses to take or the type of college to pursue are made during the high-school years. And as the book notes, "The choice that students make about their major field of study is a key component of developing their career plan."
The book points out that due to the changing economic landscape, certain majors offer more post-college opportunities than others. Companies are increasingly seeking workers with high-level occupational skills or those with skills in newly emerging fields. According to the book, "The choice undergraduates make about their major will have widely varying impacts on the kinds of careers they can pursue after graduation. For example, students who choose one of the very demanding engineering majors will find they have a much broader array of employment as well as educational options, than say, a student who chooses a social sciences or humanities field."
Students who pay close attention to the decisions made in high school -- from elective courses to after-school activities will find that it helps them in not only their pursuit of postsecondary education but in their pursuit of a fulfilling career.
Debra Auerbach is a writer and blogger for CareerBuilder.com and its job blog, The Work Buzz. She researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues.
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