Book Reviews

Book By: Mel Levine
Review By: Virginia N. Gordon
The Ohio State University

Career Readiness: Preparing Students for Work and Life

Most academic advisors have encountered students who are in a state of uncertainty about a career direction or unable to envision their future personal or work lives. Although we often associate this dilemma with undecided students, many of these career-uncertain students have selected and are actually pursuing a major. Some graduate without any idea of where they are going in work or life. Others find themselves stuck in entry-level jobs that are boring or do not suit their interests or abilities. Mel Levine, in his book, Ready or Not, Here Life Comes (2005), offers some insights into why some students are unstable or unable to make solid or realistic future plans. Academic advisors will find some of Dr. Levine’s ideas and premises resonate with their own experiences with college-age youth. Some of these ideas can suggest ways of helping them through what he terms “work-life unreadiness.”

Young people who feel anguished and uncertain about a career direction while in college or when they enter the job market may have never learned to formulate specific work or life goals. Others feel they have made “some awful mistakes” in their career choices. This unreadiness for work and life may be revealed right after high school, while in college, or even when faced with finding employment or starting a job. Although Levine concedes that some emerging adults take longer to establish a stable work life than others, some are frozen in their attempts to envision a future for themselves. He claims this population of career-unready adults is growing. (One example is the current phenomenon of “boomerang children” or those who return to live with their parents after college.) Academic advisors occasionally may feel a sense of frustration when confronted with these individuals. Dr. Levine provides a model that can help us understand why some students are so “unready” to plan their future. As a pediatrician he watched children grow from childhood to the “startup years” which he defines as the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Understanding why some young people have such a difficult time moving through this stage of life can help advisors recognize their particular dilemmas and devise ways to help them.

Levine’s Four Predicaments

What are some of the causes of this career unreadiness that is pervasive in young people today? Many personal and cultural forces can set the stage for an individual to be work-life unready. Levine identifies four predicaments that may help to explain why some are caught in one or more career bind.

Trapped in their teens

As Levine notes, most young people experience adolescent-type exploring and experimenting. It is when individuals are confused or floundering about their future plans that problems appear. There are many reasons why some students may delay adulthood. Our culture currently celebrates adolescence and the media surrounds us with examples of “teenage coolness.” Some young people are so used to immediate gratification and so saturated with the pleasures of being a carefree adolescent that the demands and structure of the academic environment or the adult workplace are poor substitutes. They prolong adolescence when they feel protected by their peers (and sometimes their parents) and have little responsibility.

Levine describes “cool dudeship” as a collection of personal marketing strategies that students use in college in order to receive peer adulation. Coolness includes a dress code, certain physical gestures, an appearance of confidence, and a loyalty to an inner circle of friends. Learning to fit in and being accepted by those around them are hallmarks of being cool. Some adolescents will sacrifice family life and education in order to remain cool. Extending this into their work life will inhibit their readiness to engage in serious career planning. Levine asserts that there are potent forces in our society that encourage young people to select each other as role models in place of adults. It is critical for them to connect with adult role models, however, if they are to succeed in the adult world.

Fallen idols.

Another cause of work-life unreadiness includes some young people who may seem like least-likely candidates. These are students who were former heroes, successful in everything they attempted. They coasted through childhood and adolescence academically, athletically and/or socially with little effort. Levine indicates that “intoxicating levels of gratification and stimulation can drain kids of motivation or ambition” (p. 41). Levine suggests that parents sometimes shield their children from too much adversity. If a child is having a problem in school, for example, some parents intervene immediately. When they constantly intervene, children are not allowed to learn how to settle their own problems or become effective decision makers. When children are overindulged at home or made to feel overly special in school, there is a risk that they may feel the world owes them. This feeling of entitlement may carry over into college or the workplace.

Takers of wrong roads

Levine says more work-life options exist today than any other historical period. This complexity offers so many career possibilities that some young people are bewildered by all the options. As a consequence they make choices for which they are not suited or have little interest. They have never realistically examined their true interests or abilities in the context of work. Some select a career for superficial reasons and are well into it before they realize it is not what they expected. Making money, for example, may take precedence over any other job characteristic. Our educational system has not prepared them to choose a career path that matches their values as well as their strengths and interests. Many students are naïve when they begin a job and don’t understand the workplace and what is required of them. This can lead to problems in identifying expectations and relationships with co-workers.

Minds in debt

Levine claims that public educational policies impose standards that assume all students’ minds are the same. As a result many students’ potential strengths and talents are not recognized or cultivated. When the assets and deficits of students’ minds are misunderstood, not adequately defined, misread or not read at all, “…developmental debts will be carried well into the startup years” (p. 65). Levine indicates that we tend to categorize and oversimplify human differences. We need a better understanding of how individual students’ minds work so that we can help them exploit what makes them unique. Some need help in developing an environment in which they can feel good about whom they are becoming.

Levine outlines many “mind debts” that are dysfunctions that can reappear when a student enters college or the workplace. Examples include communication problems, organizational deficiencies, inadequate conceptualization, underdeveloped social thinking, and memory limitations. Students need to develop good work habits, work rhythms, and a work ethic. These are important characteristics that can be learned and cultivated during the college years.

Advisors’ Role in Promoting Readiness

How can advisors help young people through these high school-to-college and college-to-job transitions? Levine outlines four general growth processes that involve students’ readiness for adulthood. Advisors can help students recognize these growth areas and guide them to the activities and resources that can help to develop and refine them.

Inner Direction

Advisors sometimes come in contact with students who have difficulty in identifying the kind of person they are or who they are becoming. This is a lifelong process, but one that is most challenging during the adolescent to adult transition. Advisors are familiar with students who initially choose academic majors or career areas for which they have no interest or don’t have the background or ability to perform. Some students make decisions based on little consideration or knowledge of their personal values. Levine notes that it is important for young people to assess their strengths and weaknesses by getting in touch with their patterns of moods and feelings. Feedback from parents, teachers, and school experiences can offer insights into what the student “may want to keep and what they need to work on” (p. 101). Active self-assessment is key in probing the questions of who am I and what am I turning into?

Interpretation

It is also essential for students to be able to understand the world around them and how their surroundings influence them. They need to understand ideas, issues, expectations and processes. They need to be able to interpret new knowledge and integrate it into what they learn from everyday experiences. Some students go to class without an awareness of how they process key concepts or ideas. They can answer questions in class or on a test without understanding the concepts behind what they are learning. When this carries over into a work environment it often leads to failure.

The components of accurate interpreting include being able to process information actively and effectively, recognize patterns, and being able to make judgments about “…products, people, ideas and opportunities..” (p. 141). Levine sums up accurate interpretation as “…blending the basic understanding of information with pattern recognition and evaluative thinking..” (p. 140). It is also essential to good decision making and nurtures a positive attitude that carries over into work life.

Instrumentation

The third growth process essential to the transition into adulthood is the acquisition of skills that deal with work efficiency and productive thinking. Most advisors have talked with students who do not know what skills or competencies are needed to succeed in the occupational areas they are considering. Advisors can encourage students to compile a list of the skills needed in specific career areas, emphasizing those that can be acquired or refined in college, for example, through course work, extracurricular activities, volunteer or work experiences. Work efficiency involves organizational skills, such as time management and learning how to prioritize what is most important when expending time and energy.

Another critical skill is competent decision making. Levine makes a distinction between “problem solving” and “decision making” indicating that problem solving is just one form of careful decision making. Advisors are familiar with students who are poor decision makers. They are unable to recognize when a decision must be made, determine possible solutions, or weigh the merits and consequences of these alternatives. Helping a student with this process may begin with advisors’ modeling good decision making behavior or teaching the skills inherent in the process.

Interaction

The last set of growth processes are those that involve interpersonal skills such as communication and relating to others. The interpersonal skills that worked with adolescent peers are not necessarily those that succeed in the workplace. Translating one’s thoughts into understandable ideas and points of view is a critical skill. Levine claims there is currently a “dramatic downgrading of oral language” among children and adolescents. If students have difficulty expressing themselves clearly and coherently, advisors can suggest courses or campus resources to help them improve their communicative abilities.

Levine also discusses the need to form cooperative and constructive alliances. How to interact with others and how to become a team player are critical in the workplace. Career survival often depends on one’s political savvy – how to know who the power brokers are and how to interact with them. Advisors can encourage students to become involved in campus clubs or activities where good political behavior can be learned and practiced.

Conclusion

Levine offers many suggestions for helping students prepare for their work lives. He calls for educators to make revolutionary changes in how “growing minds” are prepared for contemporary career needs. He claims this important mission is largely overlooked by colleges. Colleges should be stressing the growth processes that foster work-life readiness within a liberal education. These core growth processes can be integrated into the curriculum by using a variety of methods to demonstrate their applications to work and life.

Levine states that education should foster self-analysis, encourage future thinking, and offer a safe place to take intellectual risks and demonstrate personal initiatives. How to adapt basic skills, such as reading, writing, math and science, to the work world can be taught. Soft skills such as “…communication, decision making, evaluating thinking, and collaboration” (p. 231) can be perfected at every level of education. The social skills needed in the workplace, such as verbal communication, alliance formation, and political behavior, can also be learned.

While in college students make many important decisions that will affect their future personal and work lives. Advisors are in a special position to help them learn the process of future planning and the importance of acquiring work-life skills. Fostering behavior that leads to a productive and satisfying work life is a task too important to ignore.

Levine, Mel. (2005). Ready or Not, Here Comes Life. New York: Simon & Schuster.


 

Ready or Not, Here Life Comes. (2005). Book by Mel Levine. Review by Virginia Gordon. Simon & Schuster. 304 pages. Price: $26.00. ISBN 0-7432-6224-7



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