A reader asks for help giving career advice to a high school kid who is about to enter the real world, in the September 1, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter.


career adviceI know Ask The Headhunter is for adults, but can you help me help a good kid? My nephew will graduate from high school next year and I’m trying to give him some career advice and vocational guidance. (I’m the only adult family he’s got.) He’s not good with academics, but he loves computers, and I think he might do well with a two-year junior college Computer Science program.

I would like to be thorough in exploring possibilities with him, including those outside technology. I looked at the Department of Labor’s Occupational Outlook Handbook forecasting “tomorrow’s jobs,” and I found a web site that purports to help determine aptitude and occupational interests. There appear to be a number of such services online, but I’m sure they vary in quality.

Are there better ways to do this? Thanks very much for your suggestions.

Nick’s Reply

Good for you for trying to help. Your influence and interest alone will make a huge difference in this young man’s life. But the thing that will affect your nephew’s success more than anything is his motivation. Help him with that first.

Career advice for kids

Do not get too stuck on how he has performed in school to this point or on whether he should pursue a vocational education or a four-year academic program. Lots of kids just can’t handle the traditional classroom, but they can do well in a more applied setting where they are motivated to learn things that have a clear connection to their own goals.

Maybe he should be a computer technician, a computer scientist or a database administrator. Maybe he should be an engineer or an auto mechanic. The objective will guide the choice of education. His motivation is key. You can help him find that motivation by pointing him toward the right resources and being there to discuss his interests, questions and concerns. Direction is the best career help you can give him.

Basic career tools

Some basic aptitude and interest surveys are a good idea, and you can get these career tools very inexpensively at a local community college. (Contact the career services department.) You don’t need a commercial company for this. Just be aware that these surveys are limited in their ability to guide anyone. These tools can stimulate new ideas, but don’t let them limit your nephew one way or the other. Let him explore and choose what he wants to pursue.

Don’t worry. If he makes a mistake, he can change his mind later. Motivation, however, is necessary now or you’ll lose him.


You are this young man’s most important mentor. Know what will motivate him more? More mentors!

Here’s the smartest thing you can do. If your nephew has some specific interests, try to find local companies that match up to them. Then start asking around. Do you know someone who knows someone who could introduce him to a person who does the work he’s interested in? Maybe he could shadow this person for a day at work, or get advice on what it takes to get that kind of job.

I would start with contacts you already have — people who know all kinds of workers from trades people to professionals. I’m talking about your priest, rabbi or other cleric. Your banker, doctor, lawyer or accountant. These are mentors who can introduce your nephew to more specific mentors. All these people know the local work landscape and can make suitable personal introductions.

The one-on-one exposure to folks who do the work your nephew wants to do is key. This is a great reality check and it will help him decide, “This is not for me,” or it will motivate him to work all the harder. When a kid can experience “the real thing” and get advice from an insider about what it takes to be successful, well, get out of the way. His motivation will go into high gear.

Career advice to excel

If your nephew has no clue what he’s interested in, try The Library Vacation, but go with him — at least the first day — to help get him on track.

As for the DOL Handbook, it’s a wealth of job information. But don’t get wrapped up in “what’s hot.” The hottest jobs cool off pretty quickly. What gets people through the down cycles in their careers is their motivation and their expertise. Even in the most depressed fields there are true experts still commanding good salaries. That’s the goal. Not to survive, but to become one of the best.

Plumber. Programmer. Landscaper. Doctor. Electrician. Carpenter. Engineer. Mechanic. Whatever the work is, there must be motivation to excel behind it. Help this kid feed his excitement about whatever it is he thinks he wants to go toward. Guide him and help him. But don’t try to stop him from making a mistake or two. Be there to help him get back on track. But above all, feed his motivation. The direction he ultimately takes will depend a lot on your guidance.

Again, I compliment you for helping him out. Even kids whose parents have college degrees and professional jobs don’t always get this kind of adult help. Best wishes to you both.

Where can kids get good education and career advice today? Where did you find guidance when you were young? What can this uncle do to help his nephew?

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  1. Kudos for stepping up and helping your nephew.
    I wouldn’t put too much stock in the DOL, their track record isn’t great. Nick’s suggestion to talk to people you know, and people they know to find out info is spot on. As usual
    Loves computers is a little vague. Computer science programs tend to be academic and math driven.
    Best of luck to both of you

    • @Uncle what is it about computers that he loves? Then look to make contact with people who do that kind of thing/work that he can talk to to get their story.

  2. I favor Mike Roe’s advice “don’t chase dreams, chase opportunities” and. “find something that you can do, that someone will pay you to do, and then get good at it”.
    I’ve supplemented my day job by teaching in a 9 month welding program as an adjunct instructor in the evenings for the past 5 years at a CC. I’ve seen many young men like the reader’s nephew, good kids, but not so good academically, or not so eager to sit in classrooms and passively learn. Our educational system does little for these types of young men.
    Some thoughts I have.
    1.Avoid glamorous or trendy careers. Robotics, alternative energy, video game developers, etc. Young men can get lured into these, but I can tell you that the jobs are sparse and wages are low.
    2.Unless it’s STEM, avoid 4 year colleges, especially when this young man struggles academically. Why set him up for inevitable failure.
    3.Investigate OJT or earn while you learn opportunities. Some employers pay for work related classes, so he could take evening classes on their dime.
    4.Look at a shorter program track at a CC, like a 9 month program, or better yet, cherry pick some basic classes for a semester, then find an entry-level job. An 18 month program in Computer Science will require some general ED classes. CCs will try and make one take additional worthless classes. It’s your dime, time, and life, not some counselor’s decision.

    • @Antonio Zoli, can you give examples of “basic classes” you refer to in your #4? Also, can you give examples of “worthless classes” that community colleges may require?

      • Sure.
        1.If this young man pursues an 18 month AAS degree, say in Computer Programming, he’ll have to take rehashes of HS subjects (reading Shakespeare and Chaucer, government, psychology, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, foot rubbing and bongo drum circles, yada…yada). Then they’ll clip this young man for every kind of fee imaginable, text books that cost upwards of $200 each, etc. Nonsense and added $ racked up for say a young guy who wants to be a mechanic or a welder.
        2. As far as cherry picking classes, take say 3-4 basic classes in the program of interest, 9-12 credit hours, then get an entry level job. I’m not up on computer jockeying curriculums, but I can tell you something from welding, machinist, HVAC, etc. In welding, I’ve seen young guys come in, cherry pick a MIG welding class, a TIG welding class, a blueprint reading class (includes shop math), and maybe a stick welding class, so they then have 9-12 credit hours, they knock this out in a semester, and if they pass a weld test (generally fairly easy), they get snapped up by employers who need an entry-level welder today, not 9 months or 18 months from today. The rest is hands on OJT. Programs hate this as it cuts into their state and federal funding, doesn’t bank roll inflated administrative salaries, and doesn’t fund sports programs, but hey, that’s why they call it a “community college”. Once they have skills honed, then monkey branch to the next job for more $ and a step up, just as Don Harkness has pointed out.

  3. I went to high school with a young man (late 1950s) who was always building electronic things, taking apart TVs and radios, etc. who dropped out in the 11th grade, went into the Air Force for 4 years, got out, and his first “civilian” job was at the NASA Lewis Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, filling a PhD position, miniaturizing computers for moon shots. We just never know what potential resides in someone, do we?

    The point?

    Don’t try to steer this young man away from or toward something, don’t rely on assessments that tell you what you “should” do, don’t encourage him to buy into the “you can do anything you want to; follow your passion and success is guaranteed” bromide, and do encourage him to explore, ask questions, take (and sift through) advice, and remind him that in all this, he is in charge of and responsible for himself.

    Good on you for getting involved … perhaps the thing he needs now more than anything is an adult who believes in him, encourages him, and roots for him.

    And if at the end he decides he wants to be a software engineer or a brain surgeon or a groundskeeper at the local golf course, as long as he made his own informed decision, who are you or I, or anyone else, to say he should have done something else?

    • “Who are you, or I, or anyone else, to say he should have done something else”? Yeah, and when his Starbucks barista job doesn’t cover his $50,000+ student loan debt for his degree in art appreciation, and he defaults on it, it’s you, I, any everyone else who’s on the hook for it!

      • So, Antonio, while I agree with you that taking out a $50,000+ loan to get a degree in art appreciation (or electrical engineering or business administration or anything else) *MIGHT* be a bad investment and *MIGHT* result in an exceptionally heavy and possibly life-long financial burden, I’m not sure why you addressed your comment to me. After all, in my original comment, I did not mention or suggest going to a 4-year university program, and I didn’t say anything at all about taking out a student loan.

        Do you perhaps have me confused with someone else in this thread?

  4. When my kids were in high school, I volunteered at the the school’s post grad center where they kept the college catalogs and resources for vocational programs. The kids used a self guided software called “Naviance” to explore different career paths. Check to see if his school has access to this software. Another idea would be to have him shadow someone who has an IT job to get a realistic idea of what they do all day.

  5. Nick, I really like your answer. Enthusiasm is everything, we can teach you the rest. Someone who is excited about the industry we work in, the things we build, etc. is what often what I see in the most successful employees.

    • @Michelle: Thanks. The best employers I’ve worked with would jump over 10 people qualified on paper to get to one with enthusiasm, motivation and intelligence — and the ability to learn quickly.

  6. I would highly recommend they get a copy of “How to Help Your Child Land the Right Job (without being a pain in the neck) by Nella Barkley. It came out in 1993, so yes, it is dated, and some things need to adjusted for 2020 accordingly. But that is not an obstacle to applying the key concepts. So many things in this book parallel the advice Nick gave in his reply. Particularly the idea of surveying. Worth checking out this book and following it – if you are serious about guiding a young person into the world of work, and want a blue print for doing so.

  7. The young man has one more year of high school left before he makes a decision. Utilize this year and next by exploring what his interests are. He has talents but no skills. Get one or more part-time jobs in those areas of either his interest or talents. Experience will reveal many things to this young man that mere academics will not.
    A big factor will be the influence COVID has. Many companies are either laying-off or furoughing present employees. As such it remains problematic about making career decisions.
    This young man should take a basic test that determines his thinking style. This test must not be equated with a personality test. There are only 25 questions and they reveal how a person thinks, which influences what they do and how they do it.
    At this stage of his life, he should opt to get job experience, even if it means working less than a year for a particular company then moving on to another. The experience factor will reveal many things about himself, he currently doesn’t know exists. Until such time as HE DECIDES what he wants to do, involvement in technical or college programs are a waste of time.
    Back to the COVID factor. Many companies are either making adjustments or are in the process of determining how the company will adjust to the pro-longed and post-virus world. As such, many positions will be eliminated or upgraded. This will have a trickle down effect on what career choices will be viable or relegated to the trash heap.
    The Uncle should listen and ask questions how his nephew feels about himself, what’s happening in America, and what interests he has. Listen, then listen some more BUT let the nephew make the decision. Be supportive but not dictatorial.

  8. I’d advise him as some have suggested. Tell him not to stress out trying to figure out what he’ll do for the rest of his life. It’s highly highly probable if he thinks he knows it will turn out to be something a lot different. And keep in mind as noted…what’s hot now is almost irrelevant as that changes so often it you take it seriously you’ll have blown time & money.
    At HS age, there were some of us who…bless their hearts KNEW what they wanted to do in life. Most of us had no clue. We didn’t know enough about life to know what we didn’t know, that when discovered would most likely give you a direction. At his age he can’t make a mistake.
    I agree with Antonio. Get a paying job. your 1st educational experience lies there…What a working life is like, and you get paid to learn it.. And you may find something therein you can get good at and can turn into that mythological dream job.
    . If you can swing it, go to a Community College in tandem. Pick any major that seems appealing. And focus on taking most of the required courses that can be found in most majors, so if you feel you started out in the wrong direction you can shift with minimum loss of your investment in time & $

    You will get some more clues…or stumble on the foundation of a career direction. And your 2nd educational experience is there. how to play the academic game, how to get an education. And some stronger ideas of whether you even want a 4 year degree, or not.

    If you want to go on to higher education and the 2 year will be accredited then move on u. The combination of working for a living, and an understanding of how the educational system works will make you a much better student. You’ll know what the Hell you’re there & what you want out of it.

    You’ll also be better equipped to see a direction. If that 1st job did not turn out to provide an attractive career ladder, then move to a better platform. If the community college experience grounded
    you enough to know your major needs a change..then change. Including a change that may be in the direction of trades.

    Stated another way..as to careers and education. in my view, A 2 step approach of nailing down a 2 year degree, then building on it for a 4 year degree, while working works much better than jumping into a 4 year program..based only on the limited experience of high school. Unless you are one of the kids who actually firmly knows what they want

  9. I would not take an assessment. They are expensive and don’t really offer much. And they are horribly expensive. There is no value in them.

    I would take an associates degree at a community college. They do teach you the basics of computer science (and even of humanities). The community colleges teach the basic, foundational courses for all computer science specialites and it costs less than other forms of college. Here in Massachusetts, if you graduate with an associates degree from a community college, you are automatically admitted to any UMass university to complete your bachelors degree. Community colleges offer courses on par with universities and for a lot less money.

    Having worked in the software end of things for nearly 40 years, I do find that a bachelors degree is a minimum standard. However, there are many paths to getting one and weighing the costs is very necessary.

    If your community college has a program to let high school kids take college classes that is a way to explore what aspects of the computer science world your nephew would like to take on. The courses are significantly discounted for high school students. And they count towards the associates degree.

    I do find the Department of Labor’s website helpful for guidance on projected jobs and salary. https://www.onetonline.org/

    I’m proud of you for helping your nephew and I’m proud of your nephew for paying attention to his future.

  10. Most important lesson

    It’s ok to be 18 and not Have your life mapped out. All the TED talk people who talk about their life progressing like that are liars. I’m sorry, too direct , marketers.

    Two years in a good CC system will payback, but choose carefully. There are about 12 such good systems in the US so not every State can play

    Very proud of ours here in NY. 63 counties, 64 systems

  11. first piece of advice, Mike Rowe aside is:

    You can and probably will have several different jobs or careers over your lifetime.

    You may try something you like and have an interest in, but find it’s not for you. It works the other way as well. You can try something you don’t think you will like, but it turns into something else.

    That’s ok. Do your best, be yourself, and one thing will lead to another.

  12. It’s worth remembering that a person can LOVE and ADORE the work they do but the boss or management of the organization is hell, or something about the place they work is not a match-and that can be geography, home-based, noisy or any number of things.

  13. There is also a financial side to this. It sounds like his parents are not around or are not helpful and kudos to you for trying to help. But, he is approaching adulthood and it is unstated if he has the funds to go to a school for 2-4 years. Ideally, he can determine a general area he wishes to study (i.e. Computer Science) and get a 4 year degree. But, if time is of the essence, then he will need a trade (e.g. the welding example) that he can jump into quickly and use some OJT. Then, there is also the military – who will train you for ‘something’ and certainly has its risks, but I know quite a few people where it was a good fit.

    On ‘liking computers’ – that is too vague. That could include programming, hacking, building, graphic-arts, audio mixing, playing games, watching videos, building spreadsheets, database admin, debugging, etc. Note that ‘playing games’ is a dime a dozen. Be aware that programming does require some decent math and logic skills. For example, I know a person who tried programming, but could not figure out how to code a problem like “given x widgets, determine how many full cases (which can hold 16 boxes), how many full boxes (which can hold 20 widgets), and the remaining individual widgets.”

    • @Paul: I second your suggestion re joining the military as an option. Not every is cut out for the military, and there are some big inherent risks to joining (like getting sent to war should there be a war), but there are many positives too.

      A cousin has a son who sounds a bit like the high schooler in this week’s Q&A, minus the parental support (my cousin and his wife fully supported their son) part. But he wasn’t academically inclined, didn’t want to go to college at all, and after high school he drifted about for a while, working part time at the local Market Basket and later at a local Barnes & Noble, and getting nowhere. Like the high schooler in this week’s Q&A, he liked computers but couldn’t figure out what to do with that interest without having to go to college. Everywhere he applied required him to have some kind of post-secondary school education and degree. So he decided to join the navy, where he was given tests to determine his strengths and weaknesses, and the navy trained him in computers. A couple of years ago he missed out on a promotion because the navy wanted him to get his degree, which the navy would pay for, and he didn’t want to. He decided to separate from the military, and had begun to look for computer jobs in the civilian world, only to strike out due to not having a degree AND not knowing how to translate his military experience into civilian lingo so employers would understand. He decided to stay in the navy, and he’s still being pressured to get his degree, and he’s still resisting. He’s earning a good salary, has better benefits than many in the civilian sector, and recently remarried.

      The military will figure out what to do with the high schooler, and provide the ONJT. But they’ll likely make promotion tied to a degree, so at some point, college will be something the high schooler should consider anyways.

  14. Good for you for taking an interest in and for trying to help your nephew!

    “He likes computers” is too vague, but I think Lucille made some excellent suggestions. I second her recommendation to look into community colleges. Many offer computer programs and courses, and this would be a start. You and your nephew can go online and look at the computer programs and courses offered at community colleges in your area. Local 4 year colleges and universities also offer degrees and courses in computer science, but community college will be cheaper and in Massachusetts, admission standards are low (he’ll need a high school diploma or a GED–community colleges here don’t care about your high school GPA when it comes to admission). He may not be academically inclined, but a degree in computers will still likely require math courses and if he needs remedial/developmental courses (this is very common at community colleges), then you’ll find that he’ll be able to take them (and perhaps learn them better than he did when he was in high school). Here’s a couple of links to computer programs at a few different community colleges in Mass: https://www.bhcc.edu/academics/departments/ and: https://www.hcc.edu/courses-and-programs and: https://www.northshore.edu/academics/pathways/index.html and: https://www.stcc.edu/explore/programs/ and https://www.qcc.edu/academics. He can click on the links to the computer programs and learn about the courses he’ll need, pre-reqs, cost, etc. Here’s the link to UMass/Amherst’s Computer Science programs: https://www.cics.umass.edu/. Of course, that’s for a bachelor’s degree and higher and may not be what he wants or needs. Depending upon what he wants to do, an associate’s degree may be enough. Or it might not. A few years ago, we had a lab monitor (college student job) who was getting his associate’s degree in computer science, and when he was applying for jobs, he wasn’t getting any interest. The reason: employers wanted people with bachelor’s degrees in the field, and our dean strongly encouraged him to go to UMass/Boston for his bachelor’s degree in computer science as it had an excellent program. He lived with his brother and brother’s family, and did earn his degree, and got a job, but he started at a community college, saved a bundle of money, etc. So it was a good fit for him.

    He doesn’t have to have his life all figured out and all planned out at age 18. It is okay for him to try different things, to figure out what he likes, what he’s good at. If he’s terrible at math, hates it, then going to school for and getting a job as an engineer or a pharmacist won’t be an option. And if he’s not the academic type at all, then there’s nothing wrong with learning a trade. Electricians and plumbers make very decent money and don’t have to have college degrees. But many will have to have some kind of post-secondary school education and training. My best friend’s husband was an okay/average student in high school, but college was never an option. His parents were farmers, and he was going to get the farmer when his parents were gone, so they never encouraged him to study or to learn a trade, despite the fact that he loved figuring things out, fixing things. He was to work on the farm for his father (he was never paid, so he had a second job as a bar tender for decades). His sisters did go to college as they were not going to inherit the farm. Later in life, after being poor and struggling, he decided to go to school to become an electrician. He had a friend who was an electrician, and who was willing to apprentice him once he got the education required (and had already been showing how to do some of the basics). So when he was in his 50s, he got the education, did his apprenticeship, and now works as an electrician and likes it (and earns decent money). He wished that he had done this when he got out of high school, or even when he was in his 20s rather than this late (he’s in his 60s now). So if OP’s nephew likes fixing things, then look into various trades. If you know a plumber or an electrician, introduce him to them, see if he can shadow them to help him decide if this is something he’d like to do. Car mechanics/repair is another trade that pays well and doesn’t require a bachelor’s degree.

    And just because he’s not academically inclined now doesn’t preclude him from going to college forever. One of my former students told me that he wasn’t a good student when he was in high school. He went to community college (the only option for him, he said, due to his poor grades), and his chosen field (which he excelled in) didn’t allow him to support himself (he was designing parts for cars), he went back to school (community college again), picked science, did well and loved it, transferred to a four year school for his bachelor’s degree in environmental science, then joined the USPHS (United States Public Health Service). To be eligible for more advanced jobs and promotions, he was required to get his MPH (Master’s in Public Health) degree, which he did. He later went on to earn his doctorate! (Ph.D) in environmental science, and he now works for the CDC (doing epidemiology). He said that he wouldn’t have gotten the CDC job without his doctorate, and that wasn’t possible without the bachelor’s and the MPH (the latter to help him decide specifically what he wanted to study). He said that if anyone had told him when he was in high school that he would someday have a Ph.D and be working in a field he loves, he wouldn’t have believed it. But it took him a while to get there, so please tell your nephew that what he chooses now doesn’t mean he has to stay with it.

    And I’ve read that today it is expected that most people will change CAREERS at least twice, not just jobs.

    Keep an open mind, talk to a variety of people who are doing a variety of jobs, look at what is required for entry into those fields, think about what he’s good at. Sometimes the assessment tests aren’t helpful, sometimes they are (and maybe they’re offered at a community college for a reduced cost or even free–it wouldn’t hurt to ask the advisors there).

  15. The best career guidance I received came fairly late in life (for me) but I used it for both my daughters, my nieces and a couple friend’s kids. I found that the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test VERY accurately evaluated my personality type. I mentioned to the instructor that a career guidance book linked to the MBTI types would be really great, especially for high school-aged kids. He said “it already is written”. It is “Do What You Are” by Paul D. Tieger and Barbara Barron-Tieger.

  16. David — I have “Do” on my bookshelf, and just read through my 2 types (ENFP, ENFJ) again (as I do about every 5 years), about a month ago, just to see how closely I matched the book (or it matched me). It’s a good book (fairly repetitive if you read it all) and it’s helpful. It cannot, however, tell us who we are, and if at any time anyone recommending or reading the book starts suggesting, saying, or thinking that the book is telling them what they SHOULD do, or what they WILL be successful at, or what they MUST avoid, then that person has, in my opinion, gotten off the track.

    Assessments like MBTI, StrengthsFinder, and the like are very good at highlighting strengths and aptitudes that we may or even probably have. They are very good at opening us up to possibilities we might not have otherwise considered. They are not so good at answering the questions what should I do with the rest of my life, what should I do next, what kind of work or specific job will make me happy … they can suggest some possible answers, but in and of themselves they cannot give us the answers.

    Having said all this, it sounds like you’ve been successful with “Do.” Is there an example from one of your daughters, perhaps, that you could share, for someone who is not sure if they should invest the time to read it?

  17. I’d also add to this young man-
    1. Don’t rely on an employer for anything.
    2. Self fund your own retirement.
    3. Do your job exploring, and mistakes, in your early-mid 20s, but take Mike Roe’s advice, find something you can do at an acceptable level, and pursue it. Work to live!
    4. You’ll be out of work multiple times in your life due to at will employment and morally bankrupt corporate America.
    5. Keep your debt down and save an emergency fund.
    6. Work side gigs, moonlight, develop alternate sources of income, develop passive income streams.
    7. Don’t give 2 weeks notice. Walk when you’re ready.
    8. Trust your gut, avoid toxic clown show work cultures, keep your private life and views private, play stupid and avoid too much horn locking with jerks on the job. Flee when necessary after securing new employment beforehand.

  18. College isn’t worth the cost anymore. I would rather learn a trade (plumbing, mechanic) or technical training (computers) else you will spend your life paying off the loans and expenses unless you can get a good scholarship