As the working world is taken over by high-technology and job competition increases, educators across Northern Virginia are trying to prepare young people for careers.
Employment forecasters predict more frequent job changes and a surge in automation and service-oriented positions. In response, teachers are preaching the gospel of flexibility and the benefits of retraining.
And although the number of professional positions is expected to narrow in the face of computerization, more than 65 percent of Fairfax County graduates will attend a four-year college in hopes of nabbing the top jobs of the future.
Familiarity with the working world is instilled in students from kindergarten to 12th grade in the Fairfax County public schools, according to public schools Career Education Coordinator Nancy Sublett.
"If our program works," Sublett said, "by the time they get to graduation they will have examined themselves. They will have a realistic picture of what their interests and abilities are, and where they can go for training, so they can start in the right direction."
An integrated approach gently encourages students to explore. It includes skills testing, bringing business leaders into the schools, promoting internship and part-time job opportunities, and providing extensive information on colleges and employment trends.
"We try to think of it in terms of life planning, not just as careers," Sublett said. "We're trying not to tell them specific jobs to choose . We're telling them to be prepared, to be flexible, to know how to get retraining. Because, more likely than not, students will change careers five to seven times" in their adult lives.
The growth of the career planning program in Fairfax County schools during the past decade is proof of a commitment to preparing students for a more competitive life, Sublett said. Beginning next fall, for example, there will be full-time professional counselors available in each high school's career resource center. In a special summer project, teachers will update booklets created in 1978 to show how academic study relates to job opportunities.
The intensity of career planning varies among the schools, but the chief goal for elementary students is awareness, she said. Young people are exposed to different occupations through such activities as a "model village" set up this year by students at Graham Road Elementary, where various careers and economic interdependency were represented.
The intermediate years are devoted to exploring how students' values, interests and aptitudes relate to specific careers, Sublett explained.
Beginning in the eighth grade, students maintain an academic/career planning card to begin an "inventory" and plot how courses might connect with college requirements or job interests, she said.
By high school, the planning program becomes more applied. Career resource centers in all 23 high schools offer counseling and information on how to prepare for particular colleges and jobs, including advice on entrance exams or writing a resume.
Annual "Career Days" at each school bring local business people in to talk about their jobs and answer questions. Some advanced students enroll in "mentor programs" and apprenticeships with people in their community, while others get paying part-time jobs through the schools' work-study programs, Sublett said.
"We try to stress that anything they do -- each activity or course they take -- can take on some meaning," she said.
Students say the career planning program helps, but that it ultimately depends on the individual to prove competency and create opportunities.
Barbara Shubinski, a senior at Annandale High School who has participated in panel discussions on career planning, says the program should be beefed up so that it is more a part of student life.
"But the student has to meet the counselor and administration halfway," she added. "What is most important is that kids get the information and know what new jobs are going to open up."
Shubinski plans to attend a liberal arts program in college and believes "as someone with broad interests, I wouldn't want to narrow myself now." But she's boning up on computer techniques and learning about "nontraditional" jobs in her interest areas of English and psychology.
Mike Fields, newly elected senior class president for '85-'86 at Annandale High School, learned a valuable lesson through a Career Days event: that he doesn't want to be a lawyer after all. Of the school program on jobs, Fields commented, "It's good to learn about it now because if you're prepared for it, you're not going to be as surprised as if you came out of college and saw all the competition."
In conclusion, Sublett is quick to admit that the changing job market makes it difficult to guarantee anything for workers of the future. And she said she worries that stringent academic requirements could produce a large number of people overqualified for the growing number of technician-level jobs.
The reality, Sublett said, is that not everybody can be a leader but each "can be a contributing member of the business community" if they want to be. And transition is the new watchword, she warned: "People who aren't ready for change will have a difficult time. But those who are prepared will have a happy, productive life."