Helping teens figure out their path in life is tricky. There are lots of job and education options out there, but less so in the way of guidance or opportunities to help them figure out how to choose the right one.

Amber Wendover provides individual coaching to teens to help them examine possibilities for their life after school. Her company, Thinking People Consulting LLC, also offers organizational development support, corporate training, workshops and other services to organizations, professionals and students.

We asked Wendover about her experience working with teens, and what she believes we can do to support them as they explore next steps.

Question: What is the biggest challenge facing students today as they try to figure out what they want to do after high school?

Answer: This is a big question. Challenges come in many forms these days starting from a lot of options – too many options in some ways. Along with so many options, there is an extreme amount of pressure on kids to be the “best” – and the best comes with high expectations. Often these expectations come from parents, family members, teachers – people who mean well and yet are mostly unaware they place unnecessary pressure on students. Family members worry their student won’t get into the best school, find the best job, make the most money or be able to afford to live in the perfect house.

We have somewhat glorified notion that every student should have a plan – and that plan should be perfect. We’ve almost forgotten that many of us, as adults, didn’t have a well-thought-out plan. In the desire for wanting perfection, students are challenged by being controlled, without a chance to determine what they want.

Question: How can students figure out what their interests and strengths are? 

Answer: There are many ways students can start to identify their interests and strengths. One activity I recommend is that students create a list of things they like doing and why, as well as situations they are in that excite them. These items can range from anything inside and outside of school, with family, friends or things they enjoy doing alone. Writing out this list provides a visual where themes are revealed through the list of answers.

 In addition, there are several great assessments to help identify preferences, strengths and interests. Two of my favorites for students are Clifton Strengthsfinder and Insights Discovery. When I work with students, I often provide one of these assessments to guide the discussion, increase self-awareness and gain confidence in their strengths.

Question: In an era of specialization, how can we make sure we’re giving students the time and space to explore different careers?

Answer: Oh, the era of specialization – we see this everywhere, pick a single sport at an early age, pick your career – lifetime career – before you graduate high school. There is an excellent book “The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter – and How to Make the Most of Them Now” by Meg Jay. I recommend that every parent (or any young adult) read this book, as well as every student. It’s a great reminder of the exploratory nature of our twenties, and how we should explore and experiment with purpose during the decade of our twenties.

In addition, I encourage students to spend time talking with the adults around them. Ask what they do for a living, how they started their career and what path got them to where they are. The more people that students can talk with at a younger age will help them see there are many different options and not always a straight path. Taking a curved path is what a lot of us – many of us – did and it’s okay.

Question: Recently the State of Washington launched Career Connect Washington, a public-private partnership that will link up high school and college classes to real jobs. How can high schools improve the link between education and the work world, especially for jobs that require some additional education but not necessarily a four-year diploma?

Answer: This is a complicated question. When I talk to high school students, many of them ask me what half of their classes have to do with their careers. They describe their academic life as memorizing facts, learning formulas and taking classes that are required, yet they have very little interest in them. I talk to these students about the skills they are developing through this class that are not necessarily focused on the actual subject. For example, chemistry teaches us about formulas and formulas are important for a lot of jobs, including being a baker. They often will look at me puzzled when I mention a baker. I continue to explain that recipes are all about chemistry formulas and experiments – what happens when a bit more sugar is added or less flour or more whatever.

From my experience, when students can connect their required class to the real world, it helps them understand that this time in high school isn’t for nothing. Therefore, to have a more strategic connection between schools and professionals I believe is powerful. Let’s show students through real life companies that there is so much more to life than what is inside the walls of the classroom, yet the classroom is the first step to gaining access to all these possibilities.

I have also found that for many kids, a traditional four-year university just isn’t for them. So, if strengthening the connection with companies and the schools can offer a wider opportunity for professional positions post high school without college requirements, that is a plus in my opinion.

Question: What advice would you give state leaders trying to develop programs like Career Connect Washington

Answer: There are many professionals such as myself who see grown adults between the ages of 40 – 65 who are not happy in their careers. They picked a career because someone told them this is what they should do, or they thought they needed a certain amount of income, or they thought they were good enough so didn’t take the stretch job. Whatever the reason, grown adults often find themselves stuck in their job because of external factors: the need for money, responsibilities, commitments, etc., that make it hard to change careers.

What these professionals also tell me is that if they had access to professional career coaching at a younger age – someone who could help them understand their strengths, talents, capabilities and use that information to find their career pathway – they believe things would have been different, maybe even better. That’s why I think it’s worth the effort to spend more time preparing high school and college students for professional careers outside the classroom in partnership with businesses and professional career coaches to help them jump start the chance at success and find their passion. Let’s find ways to support students by providing them resources that will give them tools and tips they can use in the workforce, in partnership with school and classroom work.