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  • Writer's pictureJohn Shrawder

Establishing an Occupational Identity

In the last posting, I described materials that students should learn in high school to be prepared to function as a full adult. This could allow student to create an identity through one’s occupation, caring, or community contributions.

This posting will focus on an occupational identity. It is covered in more detail as part of the overall course. I discuss it now because of its importance to many who are concerned with secondary education.

According to sociologist James E Cote, establishing an occupational identity has two elements. First, we must find an occupation that utilizes our long term interests and values. Second, that that occupational choice must be recognized and accepted by institutions that perform activities that are respected by the broader community. This requires an assessment of a student’s personal interests and values and an understanding of social institutions.

The United States Labor Department provides many resources to help students with these investigations. For this blog we will focus on the on-line 2019 Occupational Outlook Handbook. This will give us knowledge of the abilities and skills valued by institutions in the United States The handbook features 563 occupations in the United States and included detailed profiles of 324 occupations that comprise more than 135 million jobs that exist in the United States today. They pay an average of $50,702. These are more than 80% of all jobs in the United States. This blog will analyze these detailed profiles.

I believe that school guidance programs do not connect students to colleges and careers very well. According to a December 2014 article in the New York Times, 20% of all American High Schools have no guidance program. The average counselor oversees 477 students in schools which have counselors. This is double the average that is recommended. A Youthtruth survey found that only 56% of high school students visit a counselor during their senior year and only 35% during their junior year.

It should not be surprising that so many students are unprepared for the issues they will fact after age 18. This article will describe some basic information about labor markets in the United States in 2019.


The percentage of students admitted to college is seen as a measure of the quality of a high school. About 70% of students will attempt college. It is well established that a person’s lifetime income is correlated to their education level but this is only a part of the story.

Finishing college. Many students have difficulty with college. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, only 60% of students finish their undergraduate degree within six years. That means that 40% of incoming students do not finish college.

The main reason for not finishing include finances, inadequate high school preparation, bad selection of a college or major, and a lack of interpersonal support. Some of this is understandable. According to an ACT survey of college teachers, only 16% of incoming freshman are ready for college. A 2018 Phi Delta Kappa survey reports that many parents do not want their children to attend college. Only 28% of low income parents wanted their children to attend a four year college.

Transitioning from College to the Labor Force. Students should not expect colleges to help them transition to the labor force. The average unemployed American takes eight weeks to find their next job. However, it takes a new college graduate an average three to nine months to find a job.

Finding permanent employment. College graduates should not assume their education will guarantee success. It takes a college graduate an average four years to find a job that will last five years. Each college graduate should expect to be unemployed an average of 3.8 times before age 48. That’s a new job about every 7 years. Average salaries of majors can vary from $90,000 for engineering graduates to $35,100 for majors in Personal and Culinary Arts.

At any time, about 41% of employed college graduates have jobs that do not require a college degree. About 11.5% of graduates are in default on their student loans.

About 37% of employed college graduates attained a graduate degree. However, many people do not fully benefit from graduate degrees. Usually they hold jobs that only require a Bachelor’s degree. Among the 324 occupations listed in the Occupational Outlook Handbook about 10% of the jobs requiring college degrees also require a graduate or professional degrees.

It is a folly to see college admission at age 18 as a measure of high school’s success. College admission is no guarantee of a person’s success. Many students are ill prepared for college and will face disappointments. Many will choose colleges and college majors that are not highly valued by employers. These students should be considered similar to high school graduates. High schools should not just get students into college. They should help prepare students who will seek permanent occupations to fully adjust to college and life after college.


In the 2017 Phi Delta Kappa survey, many parents wanted their children to be able to attain a license while in high school.

Licenses can be granted by businesses, professional organizations, and governments.

Licensing requirements vary widely among the states. About 32% of the 135 million jobs with detailed descriptions in the Occupational Outlook Handbook require a license in at least one state. About 25% of jobs without an education requirement require a license.

A person with a job that requires college degree will frequently need to attain a license in addition to the degree. About 45% of jobs requiring an associate’s degree and about 51% of persons with a higher degree will also have to attain a state license to work in a particular field.

There is no salary advantage for licensed and unlicensed jobs that require college graduates. For jobs that do not require a college degree, having a license typically results in a 20% higher salary.


No education or training. Nearly 50% of all jobs in the United States require no education and only require a month or less of on the job training. Another 12% of jobs require no education and one to twelve months of training. These jobs pay about 70% of the national average. Many people could work in these jobs well before turning age 18.

For many people, jobs are transitory. Being unemployed and frequently searching for jobs is common. It is difficult to establish long term connection to organizations in the United States without a commitment to long term training or post-secondary education. Typically it takes a high school graduate about 6 years to find a job that lasts more than five years. Those who drop out of high school can expect to work for 17 years to find a long term job. A labor department study found that a high school graduate will hold 5.4 jobs between age 18 and 48 and a person who drops out will hold an average of 7.7 jobs. Persons in these jobs will hit their peak earnings between age 45 and 55 for high school graduates and between age 35 and 45 for person who drop out.

Furthermore, the Department of Labor forecasts that number of jobs requiring a college degree will increase by 7.3% over ten years while those not requiring a college degree are expected to grow by only 3.9%.

Over a year of training. About 12% of jobs that do not require a college degree will require at least a year of on the job training. Many of these are formal apprenticeships requiring up to four years of supervised job training. These jobs can be expected to pay about 50% more than jobs that require no training. However, jobs with long apprenticeships still pay substantially less than the average job that requires a college degree.

Associate’s Degree. Virtually all of the 26 occupations that require an associate’s degree do not require any extensive on the job training. The knowledge and skills learned in college are adequate for these jobs. These jobs pay about 10% more than the average job without a degree that requires extensive experience.

Bachelor’s Degree or Higher. As mentioned earlier, jobs that require a bachelor’s degree or higher are difficult to attain even if one holds a degree. About 41% of people with a degree do not have a job that requires a degree. People try to enhance their chances by carefully choosing colleges and college majors that employers desire and by attaining advanced degrees.

College graduates should not assume their degree makes them qualified for a college level job. Only 35% of jobs that require bachelor’s degrees do not prefer other forms of training. Some should expect to take a lower level job until they gain on the job experience. About 16% of these jobs require at least 1 year of on-the job training in related positions. Some of these require up to five years of related on-the-job experience. The Occupational Outlook Handbook suggest other experiences like internships, coop programs, lab work, and field work could help college students to secure college level jobs.

Intensive Development of Skills. Expertise in obtained is attained by working over a long period of time to improve higher levels of skills. This can be around 10,000 hours or ten years of intensive training for some domains to reach top performance. For most jobs, it does not make financial sense to have high levels of expertise. Among jobs that do not require a college degree, the salary structures of only 3% of jobs provide high rewards to top performers. These are typically in sports, the fine arts, some sales areas, and real estate. Among jobs that require a Bachelor’s degree or more, about 9% provide high rewards to top performers. These include sports, arts, some sales areas, and some areas in finance.

Vocational Education in High School. Parents strongly favored expanding Vocational training in high school in the 2017 Phi Delta Kappa Survey. According to a 2008 US Department of Education Study, about 46% of public school students have access to vocational education. This study measures the effectiveness of this education.

In a The Department of Education tracked 1992 high school graduates for eight years to determine the outcome of vocational education students. They found that 65% of male and 79% of female students who primarily took vocational courses in high school also attempted college.

For females, there was no salary difference between students who took vocational courses and those who did not. This was true for high school graduates and college graduates.

The experience of males were different. High school graduates who primarily took vocational courses had a 35% salary advantage over high school graduates without these courses. However, college graduates who primarily took vocational courses in high school had a 10% salary disadvantage over college graduates who took traditional courses in high school. The choice to pursue vocational education in high school is important but not clear-cut for male students.


At any time at least 90% of American job seekers are successful at finding employment. However, about 60% of jobs in the United States can be viewed as transactional jobs that require minimum education and training. They are characterized by lower pay, higher frequency of unemployment and by a peak in pay at younger ages. These jobs are useful to employers and the greater society but they are unlikely to provide the happiness of a job that matches a person’s interests and values. These jobs also result in the unhappiness of financial hardship.

About 40% of American jobs require planning and years of preparation. This includes years of training, education, and the navigation of the needs of industries and specific organizations. If we are successful with this and find a job that meets our interests and values then we have an occupational identity that can add to the happiness of ourselves and others. This is best begun early in our teens so that identities can be established in other areas of our lives.

High schools need to help students find their interests and values and teach about the needs of institutions so they can begin their long term trajectory toward establishing an occupational identity.

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