When Malia Obama elected to take a gap year between graduating high school and attending Harvard University, the news made headlines across the nation. While her famous father was the principal reason the media took notice, her decision also sparked a broader conversation about the predetermined educational and career trajectories that high-achieving American students are expected to pursue.
3/21/17 Malia Obama is seen during her gap year on her way to work in New York City. photocredit: Star Max/IPx
Ms. Obama represents an increasing number of high school students who are pursuing alternative opportunities in their educational paths. Availing themselves of an array of options – from gap years to enrichment programs – precocious teenagers are noticing prevalent trends in the professional world — and are actively preparing for them during their pre-college years.
Here are three examples of business-world trends that ambitious high school students can act on, now, to prepare themselves for optimal career success.
1. The Rise of Automation and Artificial Intelligence
By the time today’s high school freshmen enter the workforce, automation and artificial intelligence (AI) may have replaced half of all worker activities, according to a McKinsey report, which could compel up to one-third of the American workforce to switch careers.
With AI threatening to replace many of the technical functions of today’s workers, how can tomorrow’s workers prepare? The answer rests in focusing on the development of soft skills and emotional intelligence. “Workers of the future will spend more time on activities that machines are less capable of, such as managing people, applying expertise, and communicating with others,” explains McKinsey.
“The skills and capabilities required will also shift, requiring more social and emotional skills and more advanced cognitive capabilities.”
In the future landscape of work, possessing sophisticated technical skills will not be sufficient to ensure professional success.
The best-prepared high school students must also possess soft skills, such as leadership and collaboration, which will strengthen their competitiveness in the face of advancing technology and will elevate them above their peers who lack these skills.
To that end, modern students are participating in pre-college enrichment programs, such as those at Columbia University, including the College Edge program.
These programs teach hard skills in tandem with relationship-building, communications, and leadership skills that will be essential competencies for the jobs of the future. By complementing their newfound technical knowledge with networking and “EQ” (emotional intelligence) capabilities, these high school students are positioning themselves well for growth in their future careers.
Many teenagers also launch the process of gaining soft skills through experiential activities that take place outside the classroom, such as volunteering with local organizations, particularly those that provide direct service to those in need. After-school and summer jobs with a customer service focus, such as those in the retail sector, can also provide an opportunity for high schoolers to begin honing their people skills in a work environment.
2. The Increasing Need for Career Self-Development
One-third of employees claim their bosses do not actively foster their career development. The absence of on-the-job career support compels many professionals to develop their careers independently from their organizations.
Following the lead of the working world, some students seek to propel their growth outside of high school, turning to online educational programs such as Khan Academy, Coursera, or MOOCs delivered by top-tier institutions. Such online coursework often supplements students’ classroom-based learning and stimulates the development of new skills and knowledge in areas that are lacking in their school-based courses of study.
Students have myriad opportunities to begin developing their careers while still in high school. The most common approach is the pursuit of internships and apprenticeships. According to the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM), an Internships.com survey found that nearly all employers (89%) indicated that completing a high school internship gives students “a competitive advantage” in securing college internships or full-time jobs, and 83% predicted internships would yield students higher-paying future jobs.
Apprenticeships are on the rise as well. Although fewer than 2% of Americans age 18–24 now serve as apprentices, the number of available slots has grown 42% since 2013, according to the Department of Labor. With apprenticeship opportunities expanding, coming generations of students should note the potential of these options as potential pathways to new fields of work.
3. The Death of the Career Ladder
Over the past decade, career trajectories have become more elastic and unique, changing to accommodate each individual’s needs and preferences. One illustration of this shift is in the path to retirement: No longer do employees wish to work 9-to-5, enjoying two weeks of vacation per year until they turn 65.
Instead, some young workers prefer to take extended time off from their jobs, occasionally with the sponsorship of their employers. The SHRMreports 17% of companies offer paid or unpaid sabbatical programs. Others are traveling while they work, through programs like Remote Year.
When departing the workforce at the end of career, more employees are embracing a retirement taper that takes them slowly from full time to part time. One AARP survey found that 37% of Americans age 50–64 plan to work after retiring from their current career — with nearly half of them (44%) planning to transition to a new field.
This new ethos of fluid work arrangements applies to high school students as well; there is no longer a one-size-fits-all mindset. Students today might, as Ms. Obama did, take a gap year to work, volunteer, or travel. Or they might join Americorps, a paid year of community service.
Universities like Princeton, Florida State and UNC have even begun offering financial assistance for gap years.
Some students, on the other hand, are eschewing traditional college completely. They are attending alternative institutions like Silicon Valley’s 42, teaching themselves to code, or launching entrepreneurial ventures.
The famed Thiel Fellowship encourages the latter pathway, offering $100,000 and two years of support to “young people who want to build new things instead of sitting in a classroom.”
In the professional world, we recognize that no single path is right for every worker — and this principle applies equally to high school students who are commencing their career planning process.
Enhancing soft skills and taking the initiative to forge their own unique career paths will contribute to effectively preparing today’s high school students for successful future careers.
I am dean and professor of the School of Professional Studies at Columbia University, with an academic focus in the areas of leadership development, professional learning and human capital management.