ager to be a firefighter or a genetic engineer? A heart surgeon or a tree surgeon?

Young adults usually have no trouble dreaming up cool ways to make a living—as movie stars, basketball heroes, or Bill Gates version 2.0. Whether it's flying to the moon, teaching school, repairing office machines, or cloning sheep, how can young adults determine if a career will be satisfying for a lifetime?

It's a tough call. For people between ages 17 and 21, perhaps only dealing with romance is tougher than selecting a career. So before spending years training for a specialized career, it makes sense to get a feel for the real thing.

Probably the best—and certainly the easiest—way to get this feel is through a work experience program at a high school or college. In the Houston suburb of Missouri City, students at Hightower High School considering a television career can apply to the school's "telecommunications academy." It resembles a school-within-a-school but is available to the entire school district. Working in groups to simulate actual TV procedures, the students must sweat through the ordeal of producing—on deadline—the school's daily announcements. Talk about peer pressure: Their shows are televised live before the entire school.

High-school students in Granite City, Ill., interested in law enforcement have followed officers during the school's annual "job-shadowing" day. More than 200 juniors and seniors filled out mock job applications for the 1999 event, where they shadowed firefighters, dietitians, and interior designers. Some even gained a new perspective on the classroom while shadowing teachers.

For many years, engineering students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have spent months in paid internships in sausage-making, software production, and dozens of other industries. At one point or another in their education, roughly two-thirds of the university's engineering students take a paid position through the program.

      Internet resources

      A key role of these
      real-life work
      is teaching students—
      by experience—
      to relate to
      bosses and co-workers.

A bit of real
can substitute
for a bucket of blather.
Too many jobs, too little experience
One reason for the popularity of real-work experiences is the increasing complexity of the job market. Students today may be pondering careers that barely existed 20 years ago—as a personal trainer, say, or a neuroendocrinologist. But equally important is the fact that a bit of real experience can substitute for a bucket of blather. "For a student who doesn't have the opportunity to see real people at real work, a career choice is almost like a fantasy, like a three-year-old saying 'I want to be a firefighter because the truck is pretty,' " says Pat Nellor Wickwire, president of the American Association for Career Education, Hermosa Beach, Calif.

Internships don't just give "yes/no" answers about career suitability—they also refine choices, says John Archambault, who directs the engineering co-op program at Wisconsin. "We don't have many who decide not to be an engineer, but they may decide to opt for chemical engineering as opposed to mechanical engineering."

A key role of these real-life work situations is teaching students—by experience—to relate to bosses and co-workers. According to Verna Bennett, chair of the Council on Career Development for Minorities in Dallas, "Technical skills may be less important than interpersonal skills: How to negotiate. How to get along with other people." These days, she says, "If you're not good at interpersonal skills, you're dead in the water."

Adversity can be a powerful teacher. If an internship to design widgets deteriorates into an "opportunity" to make photocopies and brew coffee, the student must start advocating for him- or herself. "Have a frank discussion with your supervisor," Archambault suggests. "Say that you are there to learn about a career, and need some hands-on experience. Maybe there's some individual project that the supervisor can oversee."

Hard to get with the program when
there is no program ...

These social skills also are critical when formal internships or job-shadowing programs are not available, as often is the case in high school. How can students intent on getting their feet wet find suitable spots? Wickwire suggests approaching people working in the field you're interested in. "Tell them, 'I'm really good at computer design. I understand that's an exciting area to you. Can I have 15 minutes of your time?' "

Because time will be limited, students should write out the most important questions beforehand. Wickwire suggests going to the heart of the work experience: "What do you like and dislike about this job? What is your most important skill? What are you going to get done by the end of today? How do you know you've done a good job?"

These discussions should reveal whether the daily grind of a particular job will be rewarding or repugnant. Don't overlook the negative: While it's important to know what you want to do, "it's just as important to know what you don't want to do," Bennett says. "Ask what are the difficult or challenging parts of this job."

Because most people love to talk about themselves and their work, this kind of informational interview often stretches past the scheduled end-point. If handled right, it easily can lead to a mentorship, internship, or summer job.

Whether the goal is finding a job on your own or enrolling in an internship through an established program, Bennett stresses the importance of good interviewing skills and the right attitude. It's far better to go in "prepared to eat humble pie than arrogant, abrasive, as a know-it-all," she says. "If you don't have a positive attitude, nobody will want you around."

If getting your feet wet is sounding like a lot of work, remember that skills like participating in interviews and making career choices will be handy long after graduation. As Wickwire stresses, these days, "Most people are responsible for their own careers. No longer do you go into a large corporation and follow the ladder up."

With midlife career changes becoming almost routine, the ability to check out a new line of work is almost as important as the ability to learn new technical skills. Handy thing: You learn both those skills when you get your feet wet in a tantalizing new career.

    If your school
    doesn't offer
    work experience

    Students today
    may be pondering
    careers that
    barely existed
    20 years ago.

If your school doesn't offer work experience
Established programs are the easiest way to sample a potential career, but if nothing is available to you:
  • Consult teachers, parents, and family friends.

  • Use an "informational interview"—where you ask about a job (not for a job)—to get your foot in the door of a business or organization.

  • Try a "cold call" on someone in your chosen field.

  • Investigate internships with volunteer organizations, such as cable access stations or advocacy groups.

Internet resources

©1999 Credit Union National Association Inc.