Career Choices for Students BY SANDRA DAVIE

     Career Choices for Students BY SANDRA DAVIE

          (Finding the Sweet Spot)


          Education Correspondent

     The Straits Times, Singapore March 27, 2007

     STUDENTS reading this should take note: Based on US Labour Department projections, someone in school in America today will have 10 to 14 jobs by the age of 38.

     Already, a quarter of workers in the United States are with companies they have been employed by for less than a year. More than one out of two working for a company have been there for less than five. Then, consider this: The 10 most in-demand jobs projected for 2010 did not even exist in 2004.

     Now, add the fact that we are living in a time when new technical information doubles every two years.

     These thought-provoking facts were presented by American high school teacher Karl Fisch to get his colleagues to think about how best to prepare their students. As he pointed out, what this means is that they are preparing students for jobs that do not yet exist and to use technologies that are not even invented.

     The presentation was for a US audience, but it should also be food for thought for youngsters here contemplating a university education. Choosing a degree course and university are among the biggest decisions a young person will make. But choosing the right course and university will be doubly difficult in a world where change is the only constant.

     Career counsellors give this advice: Students should find a course they will enjoy and be good at, and a university where they will feel challenged academically. That advice still holds true.

     Students should start by making a list. First, they should ask themselves what are their unique values, interests and preferences. Then, they should consider how they can couple these with the skills, attributes and knowledge base they have acquired.

     But the trouble is, most youngsters—and even adults—admit that they have no inkling of their true calling. 

     For this reason, career coaches say youngsters need to look back to find, themes that repeat themselves in their lives. By doing this, a student might discover how he or she has always enjoyed the arts, or that he or she has always felt most fulfilled when helping someone in need.

     It is those recurrences that will provide students with important clues about who they are and where they ought to be headed.

     Mr Po Bronson, in his book What Should I Do With My Life?, calls this finding the “sweet spot”. Discovering this often-hidden inclination fosters long-term career gratification, he argues.

     As Mr Bronson notes, far too many people operate at quarter-speed, unsure of their place in the world, contributing too little and still feeling like they have not come close to their potential. But when they find their “sweet spot”, productivity explodes.

     So, living in a world where information and technology are rapidly expanding, young people must ask what are the core skills they need to succeed in the future.

     New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who wrote The World Is Flat, on how the economic playing field is being levelled, distilled it down to four key skill sets and attitudes: learning how to learn; passion and curiosity; people skills—playing “nice”; and right-brain skills of synthesis, emotional expression, context and the big picture.

     Like Mr Friedman, American futurist Daniel Pink acknowledges the outsourcing trend— and two others that he labels automation and “abundance”—as having an impact on employment in the future.

     In his book A Whole New Mind, he argues that until recently, the abilities that led to success in school, work and business were characteristic of the brain’s left hemisphere. They were the sorts of logical, analytical abilities measured by tests such as the SAT. 

     Today, those capabilities are still necessary, but no long­er enough. In the future, what will matter most are traits of right-brain thinking—of “high concept” (seeing the larger picture, synthesising data) and “high touch” (being empa­thetic, creating meaning).

     Mr Pink makes a convinc­ing argument. Routine “left ­brain work” such as basic com­puter coding, accounting, le­gal research and financial analysis are fast becoming commoditised. Now, to enjoy good job prospects, programmers must show right-brain thinking and be able to design entire systems, for example, while accountants might have to serve as life planners too.

     For companies, it is no longer enough to create a product or offer a service that is reasonably priced and adequately functional. Consumers demand more. (Hands up, all those who have a Michael Graves teapot or a Philippe Starck juicer in your kitchen.)

     Thus, prospective university students must take a hard look at the knowledge base, skills set and attitudes they need to acquire. Then, they should match these to a course and university that will best help them acquire those skills and mindsets.

     Universities are only too aware of the need to equip their students with these qualities. That is why they insist all students take courses outside their discipline. This is so that graduates will be equipped to see the big picture.

     Universities stress developing communication skills so students will be able to not just present arguments but also weave them into a “story”, a coherent whole.

     Above all, students should remember, as Mr Friedman warns, that while the world is “flat”, it will flatten even more.

     Consider just one other point from Mr Fisch’s presentation: The 25 per cent of the population in China with the highest IQ is greater than the total population of North America. In India, it is the top 28 per cent. In other words, India and China have more honour roll kids than America has kids.

     Any student reading this is forewarned: Think about what you need to thrive amid the intense competition shaping up.

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