Cannonball trajectories. Once the ball leaves the cannon’s muzzle, it is on a ballistic path.
or How People Choose Their Own Career Paths
In physics, a ballistic object is one that is given an initial push (through gunpowder or some other explosion) and then follows a path dependent on the initial velocity and direction of the canon or gun. A ballistic missile gets initial thrust from a rocket, but once the rocket is spent, the missile must follow the path the rocket set it on as it rises and falls back to Earth.
People can choose their own paths, but in some ways their paths are ballistic, determined by choices they made as far back as Middle School and High School. Once on a particular career path, it is hard to change.
I’ve been thinking about these ideas over the last week. Here at Walden School, we are transitioning to become an International Baccalaureate school, and we have initiated the Middle Years Programme this year in our high school. We have begun using ManageBac, a grading program developed for IB schools, and it has been difficult learning how to use it and the philosophy behind it.
Grades in ManageBac are determined solely by summative, not formative assignments, and each summative assignment is based on up to four criteria depending on the category of class it is. My classes are either Science or Design courses. I’ve had a bit of a learning curve to figure all this out, and so have my students. In one class, for a summative essay assignment, only 6 out of 22 students actually turned in the assignment so far.
It got me thinking: if a student chooses not to work hard in school (something that is foreign to my personality), then what trajectory are they setting themselves on and how hard will it be later to change their path?
As a science and design teacher I had to create a diagram to illustrate my thoughts. This led to a Powerpoint slideshow on the ideas of career paths and choices, which I’ve shown to the class with only six assignments turned in. I hope it dashed a bit of cold water in their faces and woke them up. They seem to have no clue what the consequences of their choices will be, so this was a “Come to Jesus” discussion.
Chart 1: The pathway of gradual and steady effort leading to high-status careers.
Here are my thoughts:
I graphed time as a horizontal axis and divided it into sections for the major time periods of a person’s life, including Elementary School, Middle School, High School, Young Adult, Middle Age, Maturity (I’m not going to call it “Elderly” – next year I’ll be 55 and able to get those “Senior” discounts at some stores. That’s a bit hard to accept. I don’t feel “elderly” quite yet), and Retirement.
The vertical axis is effort, or the amount of work needed to reach a particular career outcome. The slope of our pathways represents work or effort over time (the physics teacher in me has to call them Power Curves). The steeper the slope, the more power is needed and the harder the pathway is to achieve. The vertical axis for career outcomes also corresponds with the level of personal choice available, the social status of the career, and usually the pay levels achieved.
The first graph represents the standard power curve or personal trajectory that is most rewarded in our society: to work hard in middle and high school, go on to college (probably with a scholarship), get a four year degree, go on to graduate school, find a job in a high-status profession, and after a relatively few years of experience, quickly work one’s way to the more rewarding outcomes. Some choose not to go on to graduate school or go through a master’s degree, and for them there are still many choices of great professions. Teachers are in this category.
Chart 2: Mid-level career paths. Those not choosing college may go to technical schools. If they choose to go to college later, there are barriers to overcome and a steep road.
The second chart represents several middle-level career paths. For students who’s trajectory takes them through high school with only moderate grades and no scholarship options, they will have to go out and find a job and earn enough money to pay their own way if they choose to climb up to college. They may have to attend a community or junior college because top universities won’t admit them. They will encounter several barriers (the black curves), which include having to work and perhaps support a family while also going to college. They may not have the prerequisite classes or knowledge, and may need to take remedial courses such as the infamous Math 1050. It is required of all Utah college students who didn’t take higher-level math in high school, and is a bear of a class. It is deliberately hard in order to weed out those who are not serious about returning to school. I’ve known several middle-aged women who have been divorced and never completed their college education who now want to go back to school to become nurses or other careers, and are finding this one math class to be a huge barrier. It is not impossible to make this climb, but many who want to never do.
It is so much easier just to work hard and take as many high-level classes in high school as possible, while it’s free and you don’t have all these other demands on your time. Some students encounter barriers while still in middle or high school, including poverty, poor schools, an unsupportive family culture, or learning disabilities of various sorts. Some students use these barriers as crutches or excuses for not finishing high school. Yet there are so many programs available to help these students out if they choose to rise above these barriers.
Even disabilities should not be much of a barrier. We all have weaknesses and difficulties in one area or another, as well as strengths, and the key is to use one’s strengths to compensate for the disabilities. When I look at myself using Howard Gardner’s Seven Intelligences theory, I can say that I do OK on six out of the seven areas. But in one, I would be considered disabled: the area of kinesthetic intelligence. I am awkward, clumsy, and lack any type of natural grace. I can barely run, I can’t jump, and I can’t dribble a basketball even standing still. I’ve also been through a serious accident when I was young that left my right leg 1½ inches shorter than my left. It tires easily. I have had to accept that I will never run a marathon, no matter how hard I might want to or how hard I practice. That also goes for playing professional basketball.
The BYU Ballroom Dance team competing in Blackpool, England. No, I am not one of them. But I did take ballroom dance classes at BYU.
Does that mean I get to make excuses and never try to do anything that requires physical coordination? Not at all. I went to Brigham Young University for my undergraduate degree, and I wanted very much to learn how to ballroom dance. It was a popular class, and we had the world champion ballroom dance team, so the instructors were amazing. But there was that problem of having no natural grace. However, I can keep time (I’m pretty good at music) and I can memorize complex sequences of dance steps. I understand the physics behind the steps, I can learn how to lead, and I can practice and practice, so I can use my strengths to overcome most of my weaknesses. Now I’m not going to say I made the ballroom dance team – that was never my desire. But I did manage to get good grades through four ballroom dance classes, including the upper division classes (although I never did master the samba). I took two classes from Lee Wakefield himself, and I even received a medal at the Medals Ball, where we had to dance a routine with a partner. That little medal means more to me than many of my academic honors, because it was so much harder to earn. And, by the way, I met my wife by asking her to dance the waltz with me.
The barriers that exist for someone gaining a high school diploma are at least partially illusory. Yes, poverty, family culture, poor schools, and a host of other social problems make it difficult for far too many students to get a high school education. But not impossible. I fully support all efforts to remove these barriers; it is one of the major reasons for having governments: to create equal opportunities for all and to secure our inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Utah College of Applied Technology logo
If a regular four-year college isn’t in the cards, there are other options. In my state, we have UCAT, the Utah College of Applied Technology. It has about ten campuses statewide, and I used to teach digital media classes at Mountainland Applied Technology College, one of the largest campuses in the system. It acts as a magnet school for Career and Technical Education (CTE). Students who are still in high school (as well as adults) can travel to MATC for three hours each day to learn technical careers, such as Nursing or Dental Assistant, EMT, CDL, graphic design, computer networking/IT, welding, cosmetology, and a host of other occupations. It’s even possible, if they really apply themselves, to graduate from high school with a college associate degree in hand. People who go this route (the purple pathway) find there way to technical careers that have excellent pay and make a strong contribution to society.
Eventually, some of those who went the technical career route choose to work towards a management or high-end professional career. This usually means going back to school at night or online while still working, as they are likely to be in middle age by now and supporting a family. They have barriers to overcome and a steep learning curve to follow. It is a possible, although difficult, option. I represent this by the yellow paths.
It used to be possible for people with only a high school education to find decent jobs in manufacturing, mining, construction, or many other so-called “blue-collar” occupations that require skilled labor, work experience, and on-the-job training. With many of these jobs unionized, they were ensured a good wage and solid career path. Just as I graduated from high school, several industries built plants in the area of my school. A large coal-fired power plant was built as well as a lime mine and refinery, among several others. Quite a few of my classmates were able to secure work in these industries without going on to college or outside training programs. They don’t have the education to move up to management, but they’re doing all right. We had a high school reunion about a year ago, and I asked several of these classmates how things were going for them, and they gave an identical answer: “I’m livin’ the good life!” It took some further questions to determine what they meant, which was they earned enough to go on the occasional vacation out of state, and they will have enough to retire in another ten years or so and buy a motor home to see the country in. And they’re right. This is the good life for many people. Their path is represented by magenta.
There’s just one catch. Many of these blue-collar jobs are disappearing. This is partially due to off-shoring and outsourcing of manufacturing and service jobs to China, India, and elsewhere. It is also because many of these jobs are becoming more technical. For example, one of my students who actually did turn in the essay paper discussed his plan for staying competitive in a flattened world economy. He plans to become a car mechanic, and recognizes he will need some training, because cars now run on computer systems for injecting fuel and require a computer system to diagnose what’s wrong with them.
Geneva Steel Plant in Vineyard, Utah circa 2005, shortly before demolition began.
As blue-collar jobs disappear here, those who held them can move up to technical careers with additional training. We had a large steel plant here in Utah Valley called Geneva Steel, part of U. S. Steel Corporation. It was built here during World War II because of the good railroad transportation, closeness to coal, and the iron mines in southern Utah. It employed thousands of people in this valley for many years, paying good wages. Then in the 1980s U.S. Steel fell on hard times (partly due to aging machinery and partly due to antiquated processes and competition from Japan and China), and Geneva Steel was sold in 1987 to a consortium of Utah Valley businessmen and employees, led by Chris and Joseph Cannon. They tried to maintain jobs as long as possible, but they simply couldn’t compete. The plant shut down for good in 2002. Since, then the entire mill has been torn down. I used to drive past the plant on my way to MATC, and it was amazing how quickly a huge steel mill (the largest one in the western United States) became an empty field. The remaining equipment was sold to a Chinese steel firm, and only one large blast furnace bucket remained, plus a great deal of ground contamination. The thousands of employees had to retire or find jobs elsewhere, and some of them came to MATC for retraining. As I observed their struggles, I found that it’s not easy going from a blue-collar to a white-collar job.
What of those students who barely manage to graduate from high school or who have to earn a GED? The rise to college becomes very difficult and steep because they have never learned how to learn. If they don’t receive additional education or training, then their options are limited. Generally they find their way into service-oriented jobs (the red pathway) that have limited room for advancement. They also have a long career, over 40 years, working long hours to stay afloat at dead-end jobs. These are hard jobs to have, requiring them to work as unskilled laborers or stand for long hours or work outside in the cold or heat. They have to work so much harder in the long run than their classmates who worked a bit harder in high school and had a higher trajectory as a result. It’s not to say people with a higher trajectory don’t occasionally work at service jobs – I’ve certainly done my share of them during summers. But I did them by choice, because I wanted to pick up some extra money, and now I choose not to work those jobs at all. I can make more money staying home and writing grants, because I’ve learned how to write. I don’t have to work standing all night on an assembly line.
Chart 3: All Career Paths. Students who graduate high school only used to be able to find skilled labor jobs such as construction or manufacturing. Those who do not are generally left with unskilled labor or service jobs. Those who do not graduate have even fewer options.
Finally, there are those who do not graduate from high school or earn a GED, for whatever reason (the orange path). They’ll find it difficult to do anything but the most menial of unskilled labor, and they will find steep competition from non-English speaking immigrants and others who have traditionally filled these jobs. They often pay less than minimum wage, which makes it impossible to support a family without working 2-3 jobs. They must rely on welfare or public assistance to survive.
Only a few manage to rise above these limited options, and the pathway is extremely steep the longer they wait. Those that are unable or unwilling to take that path and put in the effort but who still want to earn money find themselves looking for shortcuts such as turning to crime. Instead of being productive members of society, they become a drain upon it.
Chart 4: Retirement Age for Various Career Paths.
One final note: the higher the person’s trajectory (based on the choices they make in high school), the sooner they can retire and the better their retirement is likely to be. The cyan line indicates retirement age, and if you have made your money early you can retire at 45 and go have fun, see the world, and even work a second career if you want. The options are unlimited. In a dead-end service job, you may not have any retirement except Social Security. Certainly not enough to live “the good life.” You’ll find limits all around you, limits you put there yourself because of the choices you made in high school and beyond, or believed someone else when they tried to put limits on you.
I don’t know how much this sank into my students’ consciousness. I gave them a deadline for Friday at 3:00 to get all their make-up work in. A few retook tests, but no one else turned in the essay project. Sigh. I told them up front that this was the most important thing I could ever teach them. One of them, when questioned, said he knew he should be thinking more about these things, but just didn’t feel like it. Apparently, what we really need in our education system is to train students to be more responsible. But that’s a battle for another day.