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March 1, 2020

Using Motivation Sources to Guide Students to Their Ideal Careers

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

It’s a question students answer as early as kindergarten, but they often have little framework for understanding what it’s actually like to work in different industries. And on top of that, by the time some of your students hit the job market, there will likely be occupations that don’t even exist yet! Crimson Education predicts that by 2030, there will be job titles like commercial space pilot, extinct species revivalist, alternative energy consultant, and memory surgeon.

So how do you prepare students for jobs that perhaps neither of you understand yet? Although we can’t predict the future, we do know that it’s important for students to pick jobs that will bring them joy and encourage them to grow. In this article, we’ll discuss how to motivate and guide students toward careers that will satisfy and challenge them for a lifetime.

Workforce Skills for the Future

It’s no secret that technology is the way of the future. Outside of the healthcare industry, some of the fastest-growing occupations in the country include software developers, information security analysts, and technicians for new energy sources.

Because technology has transformed so many industries, employers are looking for new soft skills, many of which K–12 education is already encouraging. Here are a few of those skills you can help your students develop no matter what grade level or subject area you teach:

  • Mental elasticity: Technology makes it more possible than ever to create products, programs, and processes no one has thought of before. That’s why having the mental flexibility to “think outside the box” is so important. Employers value people who can look beyond the way things have always been done and come up with new ideas.
  • Complex problem solving: Similar to mental elasticity, complex problem solving is an essential skill for the future economy. As we’ve seen in the past with the rise of pollution, technological advancements can cause as many problems as they solve, so it’s important for students to be able to think about complicated problems and come up with innovative solutions.
  • Critical thinking: With the constant influx of information (and misinformation), it’s more important than ever for students to be critical thinkers, readers, and communicators. Students need to be able to synthesize information from several sources and draw meaningful conclusions to help them move forward and solve problems.
  • Creativity: As more and more parts of the economy become automated, employers have more need for creative people who can create original content, think abstractly, come up with new ideas, and diagnose and solve big problems.
  • People skills: We can often think of technology as detracting from genuine human connection (after all, you can order your Happy Meal from a machine now, or text someone instead of having to see them face to face). However, people skills are more important than ever, as many jobs will require students to work with people from around the country and even around the world.
  • Interdisciplinary knowledge: Segmenting subjects in school can sometimes give students the false impression that they only have to focus on one skill set at a time (e.g., “I work on math in the morning and English in the afternoon”). However, careers often demand students to pull information and skill sets from a variety of disciplines for a single project, so being able to take an interdisciplinary approach to problems is a highly useful skill.

Different Types of Motivation in Career Paths

How the economy changes might be outside of your students’ control, but what they (and you) can focus on is understanding how motivation impacts students’ interests and, ultimately, their career choices. Let’s take a look at the different types of motivations and how they can guide students toward the right career and keep them focused on their goals.

Different students will likely respond more strongly to different types of motivation, but it’s important to look for a balance between them when making big decisions like career choice. For example, a larger salary can be rewarding in many ways, but the wage increase could mean longer hours that detract from time spent with loved ones.

Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation is defined as doing something in the hopes of receiving an external reward or avoiding an unfavorable outcome. When it comes to careers, examples of extrinsic motivations include:

  • Salary
  • Benefits (healthcare, retirement plans, etc.)
  • Job security
  • Flexibility to engage in nonwork activities

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation stems from the desire for inner satisfaction, to have fun, or feel challenged. For example, if you go for a run to de-stress rather than to lose weight, intrinsic motivation sparked the urge. Examples of intrinsic motivations for careers include:

  • Building a sense of self-worth
  • Doing good for a community
  • Providing a necessary or vital service
  • Lower stress
  • A sense of camaraderie in the workplace

Family/Home Life Motivation

In addition to internal and external motivators, students’ lives outside of work can impact their career goals. You might consider family-related motivators to be intrinsic or extrinsic; nevertheless, the people we share our lives with provide their own unique source of motivation. Family/home life motivations include:

  • Time off for vacations, quality time, etc.
  • A first-shift schedule to spend evenings at home
  • Guaranteed end time each day
  • Salary that gives the whole family a comfortable life

Guiding Students Toward a Fulfilling Career

Below are some classroom activities that will help you draw out students’ different career motivations. With all of these activities, it’s important to remind students that there are no right or wrong answers. Several outside influences will impact how students think about their futures, but they should take these exercises as an opportunity to tune out other voices and think about who they are and want they really want.

  • Elementary school students: Ask students to “draw their future.” Some of your more creative students might be able to do so without any more direction. However, if your students need additional prompts, you might tell them to think about things like what they want their job to be, what they want their family to look like, where they want to live, etc. You could also allow students to create a collage of pictures from magazines or the Internet if they don’t want to draw.
  • Middle school students: Have students list the qualities they would want in a job. For example, what are their favorite subjects, and what do they like to do outside of school? Do they want to work mostly alone or mostly on a team? Do they like working with their hands or on a computer? Do they want to work traditional hours or nontraditional hours? How important is salary to them? Then have students look at their lists and think of potential roles that might match their preferences. You might need to help them think of a variety of jobs so you don’t end up with a classroom full of YouTube stars and professional gamers.
  • High school students: Have students write an impromptu essay about a career they think they might want. Ask them to consider why they want this job, their ideal qualities in a job (see the middle school prompt above), what their goals are, and how other things like family and location might impact their career choices. Once students identify a job they’re interested in, challenge them to contact someone currently working in that field for an informational interview, either over e-mail, on the phone, or in person.

More Strategies for Guiding Students to a Bright Future

Sometimes the daily grind of lessons and testing can obscure the big picture: that we’re helping students learn so they can become successful adults with successful lives and careers. By taking time to help students examine their motivations for a career, you’re helping them look toward that future in a proactive way.


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