Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Can We Please End the False College/Career Dichotomy?

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

I think this false war started with a discussion about welders. The Help Wanted ads for welders started to go unanswered, and people got understandably nervous—it’s hard to foresee a sustainable society without them.

It didn’t take long, however, for this rather focused concern to take on a life of its own. “All those darn teachers and counselors are telling kids they need to go to college—four years of college—and now we’re running out of welders. Not everyone needs college, and we need welders. Darn teachers.”

This initial salvo was followed by an armload of articles with “data” pointing out that holders of four-year college degrees earn about $1 million more over a lifetime than workers who have other credentials. This, in turn, was met with the saga of The $80,000 Welder, a story that has been reprinted and cited more often than Liam Neeson’s speech in Taken. It was as if the career tech people were saying “Let’s see your English majors make that much in a year. Ever.”

We’ve been off to the races ever since, with “pro college” folks and “pro career” folks taking turns trying to convince the world their view is the only right one. If you want to keep your options open, you have to go to college for four years—unless of course you want to avoid a mountain of debt that will keep you from buying a house and eating avocado toast, in which case you should go into a career tech field.

In the interest of our students—remember them?—perhaps we should reset, and re-center, the discussion:
  • It’s absolutely true you can make $80,000 a year as a welder, and in many other tech and manufacturing fields—in fact, you can make more. Industrial pipeline welders can pull in six figures a year; it’s likely they’ll have to like working in humid climes or Alaska, but if you do, you can easily make more than most four-year college graduates, making sure pipelines maintain their integrity.
  • That said, the average salary for welders is in the upper $30,000 range. Given the median household income in the US is a little over $63,000, you would likely need a two-welder household to be an average income earner in most states. That tends to be the case for many careers in manufacturing and in tech.
  • Neither of these statistics by themselves should deter a student from becoming a welder, going into manufacturing or going to college. Most articles about careers—and far too many about college—treat the subject as if making money is the only goal, when there are a number of other factors to consider, including—dare I say it—if the student likes the idea of becoming a welder, manufacturer, or college student. If devaluing money sounds like a bad idea, think about the last time you encouraged a student to pursue a four-year degree in studio art, where they’d likely go into about $30,000 of debt for an uncertain employment picture. The argument there is that artists have souls that need to be expressed. Couldn’t we say the same thing about welders, and manufacturers, who are much more likely to find steady employment?
  • Why is this an either/or discussion? Students don’t always get to step into their first choice lifestyle right after high school, and it’s way past time we helped them make plans accordingly. Those who can scrape together the funds to become a certified welder will find themselves making more money than working in retail, to the tune of about $12-15,000 more per year. That’s enough money to pay for college classes in cash, giving students more than enough opportunity to earn a four-year degree, debt-free—and suddenly, they’re on to their next career, having made a lifelong dream come true. It will take more than four years, and working while going to school brings its own challenges. But if the main impediment to a BA is available cash, a temporary career in the trades can solve the problem.
The low birth rate of the 2000s is leaving colleges and career programs struggling for students, so it’s understandable if they’re ratcheting up the rhetoric about their programs. The key here is to make sure counselors don’t let students get caught in the crossfire, by making sure the talents, needs, and interests of the student are at the center of our counsel, and not our own biases about life as a welder, manufacturer, or anything else. If we can do that, the possibilities truly are endless.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Recipe for a Counseling Disaster

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

In the interest of trying to achieve some work-life balance, I like to cook. This is not to suggest I’m terribly good at it; if you’ve ever seen those articles about what Pinterest projects look like in real life, my cooking could be featured in them. Still, there’s nothing quite like spending the better part of an afternoon improving my onion mincing, or watching the process of milk and flour become pot pie, all with a little music on in the background (Beethoven’s first piano concerto really makes the old masters pretty approachable).

My interesting goes back to BRF—Before the Rise of the Foodie—and even though America’s love for Rachael Ray has cooled, there is a residual effect to this wave of culinary interest that has come with a terrible price. Recipes are now eight pages long.

This snuck up on me one busy Wednesday, when it was my night to cook, and I was caught short for something to make. I picked up the phone, typed in the name of two ingredients I had, and up popped a picture of something I thought I stood a chance at making. Two clicks later, I thought, and I’d be at the list of ingredients, and on my way.

Oh no.

As I recall, here’s the essence of what came next. “My love for this dish goes back to the shores of Ellis Island, where a shy son of an Italian watchmaker and an Irish girl with a rare love of oregano met in line to begin their new lives. Little did my grandparents know that their chance encounter would lead to their spending those lives together for the next fifty-six years. It also led to the best Sunday Chicken Croquette recipe known to the New World.”

And on it went. Four more paragraphs about Lorenzo and Saoirse, followed by an in-depth review (and seven pictures) of the diameter of the bubbles the milk should show while blending the ingredients. Thinking the end was in sight, I carried on, until we got to the discussion of the ratio of oregano in the Italian breadcrumbs.

I then opted to use my phone for its more primeval culinary purpose. I ordered pizza, asking for extra oregano in the crust, out of respect for Saoirse.

I’m pleased to say most recipe websites are getting the message, as most of them now have a button at the beginning of the post that says “Skip to Recipe.” Still, I can’t help but wonder how the makers of these sites got it in their heads in the first place that I would choose to go to a recipe website to do light reading. I’m looking for a recipe so I can cook. Is that really all that hard to understand?

Since work-life balance is supposed to benefit both parts of life, I’ve taken my lesson from Lorenzo and applied it to my work as a counselor. How many times does a student come in looking for some pretty basic information, and I feel compelled to inundate them with the theory of Carl Rogers? If a student wants to know the average ACT score for students admitted to Michigan State, do I really need to explain the limits of standardized testing, or can I trust them with just the number, and know they get what that means?

It’s certainly true many clients come through the door asking a question that has nothing to do with the issue they really want to talk about, and our professional training gives us the skills we need to make the difference in their lives they really need. At the same time, if a student comes running into our office and asks what time it is, it’s pretty likely they don’t need to be given the history of the sundial—they just don’t want to be late for class.

Our time as counselors is precious, and so is the time our students give to us. Let’s make sure our advice respects that, and is equally precise.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Why You Should Celebrate National School Counseling Week

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

It just figures that National School Counseling Week starts the day after the Super Bowl. The country gorges on guacamole-covered chicken wings on Sunday, and when America’s most misunderstood group of educators asks for three nacho chips and a high five on Monday, the country is too tired to party.

In some ways, we don’t mind. The last time we made headlines, most people surveyed felt that school counselors were more of a hindrance than a help in applying to college. Before that, we were the punch line of a car ad — “Your guidance counselor drives a minivan” — or we were known as the washed-up teachers who were given offices close to the principal so he could keep an eye on us.

But Jenny doesn’t see us that way.

Jenny was the quiet, slender girl who didn’t cause anyone trouble, except herself. When two or three students saw Jenny needed help, they went straight to the school counselor, who called Jenny into that office close to the principal to talk about it in a safe, confidential place. Jenny got help, and became an even more beautiful person.

Steve doesn’t see us that way either. Three weeks into school, he had his fifth unexcused absence, and was on his way to flunking a required course. He told his school counselor he was working late to support the newborn son no one knew he had. His counselor asked the teacher to give Steve one last break, but never mentioned why. Steve got it, graduated, and got a full-time job that paid enough to take care of his young family.

If you didn’t know that, you’re not supposed to. When someone’s life slips or they don’t know where to turn, school counselors give them the space for grace and dignity to rebuild and strengthen their lives, all without fanfare. Sometimes, if you don’t know we’re doing our job, we’re doing our job pretty well.

Of course, we aren’t perfect. Most of us work with 450 students at once, and some have twice that number. Since many principals think we should change schedules instead of lives, we don’t have as much time to help students as we’d like, and most of us were never — never — trained how to help students apply to college.

I bet you didn’t know that either.

Old habits die hard — school counselors know that for sure — but if you have a minute this week, stop by and thank your school counselor for everything you don’t know they’re doing, and put in a good word for them with the principal. We might not score winning touchdowns or drive fast cars, but when the goal is to drive 450 students to win their own big game, the minivan really rocks it.