Pursue Your Dreams, Prepare for Reality

We tell students "follow your dreams" -- this is often misguided advice. Throughout school, many children spend their evenings at sports practice, and even more nights dreaming of being a professional athlete. However, 99 percent don't make it.
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We tell students "follow your dreams" -- this is often misguided advice. If it were successful, we would need a lot more jobs for professional athletes and Broadway performers. Throughout school, many children spend their evenings at sports practice, and even more nights dreaming of being a professional athlete. However, 99 percent don't make it.

It sounds harsh, but it is the reality. Only a very small percentage of students will ever play in the NFL, let alone last weekend's Super Bowl. In fact, according to Business Insider and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), only 1.7 percent of college football players will play in the NFL, and only 1.2 and 0.9 percent of basketball players go on to play in the NBA and WNBA, respectively. The best opportunity is baseball, which Business Insider/NCAA reports offers an 11.6 percent chance for college athletes to go pro (for many, that means playing years in the farm system, hoping to be called up to the major league). And it's not just athletics. The same small percentages apply to music and the arts -- Adele and J.K. Rowling are rare talents, and so were Pablo Picasso and Frédéric Chopin.

So what do we tell our kids? We tell them to pursue their passions, whatever those passions might be -- the arts, music, sports -- because you never know who might be talented and lucky enough to make it to the big leagues. We also need to be honest with our children and tell them that while they can choose which path to take, others will likely decide whether they will get paid to do it. Life will be easier -- much easier -- if they have the appropriate skills.

We must educate and inform our students about sound career choices and the steps needed to pursue those careers. We must ensure that our students have a solid educational foundation from which to build a successful career. By doing so, we have the power to help more students set realistic dreams they can achieve, which will, in turn, help fund the pursuit of their passions and hobbies. So in what fields will students find the greatest potential for success?

Forbes highlighted the most in-demand college majors -- the fields that will present our graduates with the most job prospects and highest earnings. Engineering and math fields dominated the list, with engineering concentrations making up one-third of the most valuable majors. Biomedical engineering ranked #1, software engineering was #4, followed by environmental engineering (#5), civil engineering (#6), and petroleum engineering (#7).

These findings are nothing new, however. I've written often about the issues the STEM skills gap is creating and how they greatly threaten America's economic competitiveness. By 2018, STEM jobs are expected to grow at a rate nearly double that of other fields -- 18 percent versus 9.7 percent. An estimated 1.2 million STEM jobs will go unfilled because the workforce will not possess the skills to fill them. And, as the world continues to innovate and as new technologies emerge every day, the jobs gap will widen. So what can we do?

The answer is clear. We must reach our students earlier, introduce them to math and science, and show them the engaging, exciting and practical applications of those subjects. We must continue to foster curiosity and collaboration, critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and stress to our students that the purpose of education is to prepare for the global economy, an economy that is demanding more graduates with STEM knowledge and skills. We must counsel our students from an early age, introduce them to available career options, and guide them on the path to pursue those careers with the appropriate course work and activities. We must encourage our students to begin thinking about their careers long before they finish high school.

The bottom line is this: Students should continue to pursue their passions and the dream of becoming the next Peyton Manning or LeBron James. But let's also set them up with a solid foundation for a successful and stable life just in case the scouts don't call. And if your child or student does end up within that rare .08 percent of athletes who go pro, a strong academic foundation will give them security. Studies show that within two years of retirement, 78 percent of former NFL players have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress. Help your child have a brighter future through a career they can pursue once their dream career ends. And for the other group -- the majority 99.02 percent -- opening their eyes to the career possibilities of their future will excite them and inspire them, and give them a new dream to pursue. A dream that leads to a successful life.

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