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What's Your Kid Doing After High School?

Here’s how to help your kid figure out what’s next

Published on: September 27, 2018

Man graduating from high school with diploma

Chances are good that every teenager yells “I’m not going to college!” at least once during high school. Whether or not they mean it is, of course, up for debate. But what if pushing your kid onto a four-year college path isn’t the right fit? 

The good news: The options after high school graduation are limitless. The trick is getting your kid past the “I don’t know what I want to do” quandary, says Bob Dannenhold, founder of Collegeology, which provides college, gap year and educational advisement for life after high school. 

Here’s how to move your teen from having no answers to having a plan of action for life after high school.

Ask questions

College advising professionals know that not every kid is ready for a four-year college and that the college experience isn’t the best fit for all young adults right after high school, says Dannenhold. He helps his clients evaluate their strengths and interests to develop a formal proposal for them to present to their parents. 

To do this at home, have your kid discuss their strengths and interests. If they’re not comfortable doing that with you, ask a favorite relative, neighbor or teacher to help, says Dannenhold.

Those strengths and interests may not necessarily lead to college. Dannenhold’s young clients have told him of dreams of starting their own business; indeed, many have gone into business, which have included a mobile power-washing company, a pool-cleaning service and a mobile key-making service.

If your teen is interested in going straight to work, but not necessarily to begin their own business, guide them to companies that will support their growth, says Dannenhold. “We’re lucky in Seattle to have so many companies that are a good, safe workplaces with growth opportunities, like Amazon and Costco,” he says. 

Local parent Jody Allard notes that her eldest son went straight into the workforce and has already experienced three promotions at his tech startup; he’s on the verge of making more money than she does, she notes.

Take profession out of the conversation

When professional consultant Amber Wendover works with kids ages 16–22, she doesn’t ask them what they want to do. Instead, her goal is to get them to really understand themselves by asking questions like “What do you enjoy doing and why?” “What type of environment do you feel most comfortable in?” and “What gives you the most energy?”

She takes profession out of the equation. “If you’re working with a student who says they are innovative and good with their hands and doesn’t want a desk job, it’s important to help them create a list of characteristics that highlights the root of their strengths,” says Wendover, who’s the founder of Thinking People Consulting

She encourages her clients to look at online job posting sites, such as Indeed, and conduct a search based on their strengths. “What happens when you type in the keyword ‘innovation’ or ‘creativity’?” she asks. “Students quickly realize that there are more jobs available than we are able to list on paper.” 

She then has her clients review the job requirements. “Sometimes they realize that a four-year college degree is necessary,” says Wendover. “Sometimes it shows them another path.”

Wendover also asks her clients to interview every adult they know — from their favorite high school teacher to the family mechanic — to ask how they got to where they are now. The task helps her clients learn how to better communicate and to understand that networking matters. (Plus, it doesn’t hurt to realize how winding a career path can be, she says.)

Explore every option

While “gap year” might be one of the trendiest phrases of 2018, Dannenhold has been helping young adults plan these adventures and volunteer experiences for 30 years.

“Gap years give kids some time to grow and mature,” he says. “Some programs even offer college credits [or] are free, while others are a lot less than a year of college.”

Dannenhold recommends the Gap Year Association, a nonprofit accreditation and standards-setting organization for gap years. Kids interested in gaining skills while volunteering and exploring interests can try City Year, AmeriCorps or The Student Conservation Association. Also, check for programs at specific colleges; Princeton University encourages incoming freshmen to complete a gap year through its tuition-free, nine-month Bridge Year program.

Also on the table as options are two-year community college programs and vocational schools. Look online for job-training programs at both.

One local example: the composites training program at Edmonds Community College. Students who complete the 15-credit course receive a certificate of completion and can apply for apprenticeship programs at Boeing.

Other local possibilities: Clover Park Technical College in Lakewood offers more than 40 programs that span 13 fields, South Seattle College is well known for its culinary program, and Tacoma Community College offers a training course to become a certified forklift driver and earn as much as $38,000 a year.

And finally, listen

No matter what your child’s interest, there is one piece of advice that matters most, says Wendover. “I encourage parents to stop talking and start listening,” she says. “I remind them that it’s okay for a child not to have their life perfectly planned.”

It’s okay to make mistakes, she adds. “For most of us, our career path is full of trial, error and experience,” Wendover says. “Your child’s unique path will lead them to where they’re meant to be.” 

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