WASHINGTON COMMENTARY: Unusual Career Opportunities

Article excerpt

CAREER counseling can have its interesting moments. Take the outside career consultant who was asked recently by some astute middle school students about one of the top money-making professions on his list. He explained the nature of the work and the possibility of making a six- figure annual income. The principal and parents, however, were not pleased. It happened that the career the expert discussed with the students was exotic dancing.

I would like to suggest another off-beat career path not often mentioned as a lifelong occupation, one that's certainly not as high paying as the consultant's option, but one in which talents would be just as appreciated. Most important, it already is an accepted part of school life in many places. (Okay, some would say generally accepted teenage dancing borders on the exotic these days.) That career is service. Students often participate in service programs or service learning because it looks good on college applications or is a natural outcome of their church or club activities. If they stumble into careers of service later, it is usually an afterthought, not part of a planned path.

Considering the social, environmental, and economic equity issues that today's students will be responsible for handling, it is time now to move beyond the volunteer possibilities of the service field and get specific about the career possibilities.

Let me give an example going on right now that makes this point. About 10 years ago, a 12-year-old in Manatee County, Florida, brought together a few friends, ostensibly to find projects to fulfill the school's service requirement. They chose helping seniors to live independently, and so the students started with doing lawn mowing and small jobs around the homes of the elderly. A Learn and Serve grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service expanded their fledgling ManaTEENs group. Today, about 10,000 young people in southwestern Florida help out seniors in many ways. They senior-proof homes, remove environmental hazards, and involve their families in "adopting a grandparent" for whom they provide transportation and companionship. When the teens found out that almost 20% of seniors were sharing their meals with pets because they could not afford pet food, they started monthly collections of food, which they also deliver.

In the last two years, these students have helped 37,000 seniors to live independently. What's most important, at least 60 of the former student volunteers, including the youngster who started the whole thing, are now committed to service as a career. They have come back as adults enrolled in AmeriCorps*VISTA.

This was one of the examples of pathways to service careers discussed at a series of forums sponsored by Innovations in Civic Participation (ICP). This is a nonprofit organization founded by Susan Stroud, the first staff director of the Corporation for National and Community Service. ICP focuses on promoting civic engagement through service.

In addition to helping find ways for seniors to live independently, the ICP forums also linked opportunities for national service with youth development in out-of-school time and with rural development. The service and social service leaders who participated drew up recommendations for policy makers, and each group, meeting separately, came to the conclusion that much greater efforts must be made early, no later than the high school years, to use service learning as a trigger for raising the interest of young people in service as a career.

Apparently, voluntary service offers a good way into careers in service. More than 200,000 alumni of national service programs are now employed in a youth-related field. …