Career exploration for middle schoolers: mock trials, rock stars…and frosting

This week nine months of planning came together at the annual Career Day — called Dimensions in Living — at my son’s middle school. As the parent chair of the committee that produced this extravaganza with 45 speakers for some 900 students aged 11 to 14, I can honestly say it was both an energizing and humbling experience.

Energizing, because as a recruiter and career counselor, I took some voyeuristic satisfaction in trying to figure out which types of speakers would both inform and engage this challenging age group. Humbling, because I couldn’t have predicted which speakers would draw the most interest — even for my own child!

Here’s some of what I learned:

Most middle schoolers (there are exceptions) aren’t yet thinking long term about careers. While sessions led by experts in practical fields like dentistry and accounting were challenging to fill, more than 400 students selected the cupcake baker as their number one speaker choice. With due respect to the talented and very successful baker we tapped for this career option, I think it’s fair to say that many kids were in it for the frosting.

Show and tell still counts. My son attended sessions led by a locally prominent news anchor and a well-known architect. He enjoyed both of their presentations, but the one that drew total raves was the team of police chiefs that packed some pretty impressive equipment.

Middle schoolers still like — and need — to move. From a local golf pro to a personal trainer to a professional soccer coach, the students attending these sessions were fully engaged. And there was a somewhat related career option that was also wildly popular: physical therapy!

They also crave creative expression. We had no less than three professional actors, two fashion designers, a rock musician and an interior designer, all of whom played to packed houses. All of these professionals took care to engage the students through interactive exercises or projects, giving them a platform of their own for future consideration.

They are inspired by those who serve our country. Two separate members of the military attracted filled-to-the-rafters audiences of both boys and girls.

They’ll even eat healthful foods if you make it fun. While the above-mentioned cupcake baker and a very popular caterer topped many students’ wish lists, I was pleasantly surprised that the less sexy-sounding “food educator” drew many fans as well.

Traditional professions captivate as well — the technology engineer who talked about finding inspiration in philosophy and chemistry in college, the vet who brought an irresistible large plush canine, and the judge who brought an entire entourage to enact a mock trial which students described as just plain “awesome.”

At the end of the day, when the speakers circled back to the library for a little R and R, I asked the accountant when he first became attracted to his field. “When I was about 17, he replied.” How about at age 12? “I never really heard of accounting.”

Perhaps the most interesting comments came from the adults, including many of the speakers: they wished for a “career day” for grown-ups. They wished they could attend many of the sessions offered for the kids.

In reflecting on that, I think it’s actually an awesome idea. Instead of sending adult career-changers out on informational interview after informational interview, what if we could bring the info to them? Not a job fair complete with resumes and applications, just a forum to exchange ideas and share experiences.

For middle schoolers, the goal of career day is to provide exposure to a broad range of options — and to resist the temptation to draw long-term conclusions from the students’ choices in the moment. For adults, the time urgency may be heightened, but there is also more life experience and wisdom to draw on. Career day could feel a bit more like speed dating, quickly ruling out options that just don’t feel right.

In any event, I’m all for infusing career days with a taste of frosting. Some experiences are just ageless.

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