Skip Navigation

High Schoolers’ Dream Careers Don’t Match Job Market Reality

February 19, 2020
By Juliana Knot

OECD Report finds teenagers’ choices for an “ideal career” have narrowed over the past two decades and don’t reflect the new economy.

Teenagers’ choices for an “ideal career” have narrowed over the past two decades and don’t reflect the new economy, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reports in Dream Jobs: Teenagers’ Career Aspirations and the Future of Work, published January 22.

The OECD study analyzes the results of a survey of teenagers in 41 countries, including the United States. The students participated in the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which tests 15-year-olds’ ability to use their reading, mathematics, and science knowledge and skills to meet real-life challenges.

The PISA test has been administered every three years to a sample of students in each country, beginning in 2000. The Dream Jobs report is based on PISA participants in 2018 who answered a supplemental questionnaire, providing details of their participation in career development activities and other preparation for work.

Goals Don’t Match Jobs

The OECD report states that 47 percent of boys and 53 percent of girls surveyed expect to work in one of just 10 popular jobs by age of 30. The figures reveal a narrowing of expectations since the 2000 PISA survey, as the shares of students selecting the most popular occupations increased by eight percentage points for boys and four percentage points for girls.

The 10 most popular careers for girls were, from most to least popular: doctor, teacher, business manager, lawyer, nurse, psychologist, designer, veterinarian, police officer, and architect. The 10 most popular careers for boys were, from most to least popular: engineer, business manager, information and communications technology professional, sportsman, teacher, police officer, motor vehicle mechanic, lawyer, and architect.

Furthermore, most of the popular career choices require postsecondary or even advanced degrees, but researchers found a mismatch between many students’ career goals, academic performance, and educational plans.

Many of the other jobs the students chose are likely to be automated in the 21st century. More than one-third of the jobs U.S. students favored could be automated in the next 15 years, the report states. In the United States, as in all of the countries studied, boys and low-income students were more likely to prefer jobs that could be automated.

New Career Choices

Advancements in information and communications technology have created new careers, but an even wider variety of choices will be available in the future, says Edward Hudgins, research director of The Heartland Institute, which publishes School Reform News.

“This revolution will be nothing compared to what [artificial intelligence] and robotics will do,” Hudgins said.

Many students are unprepared for the changing labor market because administrators and teachers are insulated from economic forces, Hudgins says.

“Government schools are detached from the free market and real world, so why should it be surprising that they can’t keep up?” Hudgins asked.

Public schools don’t give students an opportunity to experience what work will be like when they enter the job market, says Teresa Mull, an education policy advisor to The Heartland Institute.

“Part of the reason today’s American students have such a narrow sense of the job market is because most of them are educated in government-run schools that stymie innovation,” Mull said.

The pressure of teachers’ unions also plays a role in students’ lack of awareness, Mull says.

“With traditional public schools, it's the teachers’ union’s way or the highway, and because of the unions’ control of the system, students suffer from limited access to alternative types of learning, including specialized curricula, and trade or vocational-technology schools,” Mull said.

Career Options, School Choice

The survey found students in Switzerland and Germany made the most diverse job choices compared to other countries’ students. Both countries have strong vocational programs, Hudgins says.

“Only about one-half of one percent of Americans are in apprenticeship programs at any give time,” Hudgins said. “In Switzerland, by contrast, some 70 percent of young people go through ‘learn-and-earn’ apprenticeship programs while in school, which could be a model for reforms here.”

School choice would give students the opportunity to explore more career options, Mull says.

“School choice…offers families the opportunity to explore the world of education and decide which type of learning environment is the best fit for their talents, needs, and interests,” Mull said.

 In order to prepare students for the future job market, schools should seek to encourage students’ imaginations and questions, Hudgins says.

“Students should think in an entrepreneurial manner,” Hudgins said. “‘What kind of service can I provide that’s not being provided right now? Do we always have to do things this way?’”

Lower Expectations

The OECD study also showed that high-achieving students from low-income households were far less likely than their high-achieving but high-income peers to choose high-paying occupations. Because many of the jobs these students considered required many years of expensive schooling, it’s not surprising that low-income students would feel discouraged.

“Lower-income students are the ones who have the most to gain,” Hudgins said.

Many of these students and their parents have no control over their schools, Hudgins says.

“Allowing more school choice will allow low-income students to broaden their horizons,” Hudgins said.

“If education freedom were more widespread, more children would be aware of the myriad careers available to them,” Mull said. “Instead, they're being forced to remain in a stagnant system that prioritizes pensions and teacher benefits over the success of students and society.”

Juliana Knot (jjknot322@gmail.com) writes from Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Internet Info

Anthony Mann, et al., Dream Jobs: Teenagers’ Career Aspirations and the Future of Work, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, January 22, 2019: https://www.heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/dream-jobs-teenagers-career-aspirations-and-the-future-of-work

Related News & Opinion View All News