What Should My Kid Study?

Most people want their kids to succeed. But how? Of course, there’s the generic ‘work hard’, ‘study hard’ advice. But work hard at what?

I recently started attending open houses for high schools with one of my children. What stood out for me was how soon my child will need to make choices that will affect the rest of her life. Long gone are the days when you could coast aimlessly through high school. From day one, the entire experience is geared towards preparing kids for college, university or the workforce.

For example, to enter the ‘Media and Technology Arts’ stream, kids need to apply before starting high school. The application includes a questionnaire and mini-portfolio. At first, I was drawn in by the idea of learning practical skills at such a young age (they’d learn all the Adobe creative software). This stream would provide introductory training for someone pursuing a career in graphic design or video production. But then I got wondering: Does the stream lead students down a narrow path with few options? Does it actually provide students with highly marketable and flexible skills that last a lifetime?

The choices kids make at age 14 or 15 impact their lifelong career prospects. How would kids know what career they want at age 14? More importantly, how can you help your kids prepare to enter fields with bright long term career prospects? And how do you do this without unnecessarily narrowing the path by focusing on too specific an outcome?

A Function of Supply and Demand

One’s ability to succeed in a given field comes down to supply and demand. The lower the supply of workers relative to the demand for workers in a given field, the better the prospects for a rich, satisfying and meaningful career.

Anyone can learn to flip burgers in a couple of days – so there is a massive supply of potential burger flippers. That’s why burger flippers make minimum wage. (They’d make less if it were legal.)

The supply of workers in a given field is generally lower the more skill the field requires. However, sometimes even skilled fields are oversupplied with workers. These are usually the more ‘exciting’ fields like advertising, photography or the arts.

Now, the world needs artists so if your child is truly passionate and has artistic talent I wouldn’t dissuade him from exploring it to its fullest. But for every person making a successful living as an artist, there are hundreds more struggling to get noticed. Most artists will need to derive their primary income from a traditional 9-to-5. They might as well make that 9-to-5 as lucrative as possible, right? Moreover, you can (and probably should) develop art skills independently outside of any learning institution. Therefore, focusing on art in high school might be counterproductive.

Emphasize Broad, Marketable, In-Demand Skills

For the best career prospects, kids need to be guided towards fields with a mismatch between qualified workers and job openings. At the same time, it is important to keep the scope broad enough to allow for a variety of future – and likely unknown – paths.

In the business world, the skills mismatch is acute:

  • According to a survey done in the UK by Deloitte, only 18% of digital leaders in businesses feel that students are entering the workplace with the right digital skills and experience.
  • In a 2016 survey of The Business Roundtable, the association of U.S. CEOs, 59% of respondents struggled to find graduates with fundamental math skills. 75% couldn’t find STEM workers to fill roles ranging from cybersecurity to data analytics.
  • According to a recent study by the World Economic Forum, only 27% of small companies and 29% of large companies believe they have the right talent for digital transformation.

What you’ll notice is the de-emphasis on specific jobs. Instead, businesses need people with math, technology and digital skills. Those who possess these skills will be able to fit into a number of specific jobs and command high salaries. Indeed they will be treated well too, as companies can’t afford to lose people that are hard to find.

Of course, there is more to the world than just business – the public sector requires the same skills as the private sector.

Regardless of the industry or sector they end up in, it is clear that if high school kids invest their time in math, technology or sciences they will have a solid foundation that provides a multitude of options.

For example, someone with a math background could have a lucrative career in data science, statistical research, actuarial science, sales, accounting, finance, teaching and much more. The table below was created by PayScale in 2014 showing the 10 highest paying jobs in the US for people with math skills:

In contrast, a background in graphic design leads to…a job as a graphic designer. Possibly a great job, but a narrow path with little crossover into other roles and limited earnings potential. The median pay for a graphic designer today (according to PayScale) is $44,304.

So why would anyone nudge their 14 year old child down a path with few options and mediocre salary prospects? Instead, encourage them to study broad subject areas – like math, science and technology – with relatively few competitors and high employer demand.

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