Every so often, I envy high school seniors and college freshmen for the seemingly endless possibilities they have. But most of the time, I feel thankful to have finished when I did.
Though I graduated high school in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11 -- at a time when stocks and consumer confidence had already begun to take a nosedive -- I still came from a generation that seemed to bask in sunny optimism about the future.
My parents and teachers provided constant warm words of wisdom like, "Listen to your heart," "Live your dreams," and my favorite: "Follow your passion -- the rest will fall into place."
When money was mentioned at all, it was to say no amount of it could buy my happiness.
It should come as no surprise, then, that I had chosen my profession by the third grade.
After publishing my first "book" -- with yarn binding and my own illustrations -- I announced I was going to be a writer.
Power of the Pen competitions, student newspapers and frequent requests to revise friends' term papers seemed to confirm what I already knew I was destined to do.
Obviously, income and job security took a backseat.
I'm not complaining -- I still love what I do, and I live within my means.
But I have to wonder whether parents and educators are doing the right thing by encouraging dreams without a stronger dose of reality to temper them.
Not a lot of kids grow up telling their parents they're going to be a network systems analyst, home health aide or personal finance advisor. But those are among the top ten fields in which graduates from now until at least 2016 are most likely to find stable, recession-proof jobs. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics' estimates of the fastest-growing occupations between 2002 and 2012 show that six of the top 10 don't require bachelor's degrees.
And with a diminishing presence of trade programs in schools and more emphasis on four-year college degrees, students aren't as likely to choose a "less-glamorous" field such as a welder, electrician or truck driver, when they could pursue something that sounds far more intriguing, like philosophy, fine arts or recreation studies. But an electrician's average annual income falls between $45,000 to almost $60,000, according to Salary.com -- and most don't have to acquire four years of student loan debt to get the job.
Truck drivers, too, will likely always be in demand as long as there is cargo to ship. With training that typically takes about six weeks, they can earn from about $30,000 to $70,000, depending on the market and their mileage.
For students who already have a strong sense of their career plans, college is a great tool and in many cases, a necessity. But all too often, students use it as an excuse to explore, to figure out what they do want, or to put off true responsibility for another four, five and sometimes six years.
But those in college now, amid a nationwide recession, do seem to be taking a closer look at the viability of their chosen fields. Nationally, the top college major in 2008 was business administration and management by an overwhelming majority, according to the Princeton Review.
That's a good start -- although it's so broad that, like communications and a host of other majors, it may not always translate into a clearly-marked career path.
If we've learned anything so far from this sluggish economy, hopefully it's the value of finding reliable work before aiming for that dream job. And if that means putting off college for a year or two to drive a truck and save money, so be it.
Annie Zelm is the assistant news editor for the Sandusky Register.