Career advice for a 16-year-old American
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September 16th, 2011
11:37 AM ET

Career advice for a 16-year-old American

Editor's Note: Bruce Katz is the vice president and founding director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution (follow him on twitter @bruce_katz). He is responding to the question: "What advice would you give a sixteen-year-old about how to prepare for the future U.S. economy? Where the jobs will be?"

By Bruce Katz, Special to CNN

Get ready for a wild ride.  The U.S. economy is restructuring from one characterized by consumption, debt and waste to one driven by exports (to take advantage of rising global demand), powered by low-carbon technology (to lead the clean energy revolution) and fueled by innovation (to spur growth through new ideas and production).

So how can you succeed in the next economy?

First, get educated. Our changing economy has created an iron law of wages: namely, the more you learn, the more you earn.

Between 1990 and 2009, median annual earnings fell for workers with a high school education or less and grew for those with a bachelor's degree or more. Workers with a BA or higher earned nearly 80 percent more than those with just a high school diploma in 2009.

In the midst of an anemic economic recovery, education is critical to employment. The unemployment rate for those with a BA stands at just 4.3 percent, compared to 8.2 percent for those with only some college or associate’s degree; it is 9.6 percent for those with a high school degree and a stunning 14.3 percent for those with less than a high school diploma.

Second, follow your passion. Given the role of work in our lives, it's best to combine vocation and avocation.

Interested in travel?  Embrace the world and engage in the international exchange that will drive 21st century economies. The most diverse nation in the world should have a built-in advantage to connect to rapidly developing countries across the globe.

Environmentally-conscious?  Accelerate the trend of sustainable growth: Clean tech; organic farming; energy efficient products; low carbon cities.  Your generation has the potential (and obligation) to repair the damage of the past 60 years.  Do well and do good.

Like to tinker?  Be a part of technological acceleration, from generating ideas to producing and deploying what we invent.  There is no limit to the goods and services we need to serve individual consumers (e.g., smart homes, remote health care, self-driving vehicles) as well as build the collective city (e.g., small cars, energy saving technology).

Third, don't be afraid to make stuff.   U.S. policymakers have diminished and dismissed manufacturing for decades.  Yet manufacturing and innovation are inextricably linked; the less we produce, the less we innovate.  To prosper, the U.S. must make things again.

As the baby boomers begin to leave the manufacturing work force, a gap is emerging in our productive capacity: a recent study from the National Association of Manufacturers found that 32 percent of industrial companies reported “moderate to serious” skills shortages, including 63 percent of life science companies and 45 percent of energy firms.

So if you are good with your hands, or have the technical capacity for advanced manufacturing, find a place to excel producing something that can be proudly stamped “Made in USA.”

Finally, place matters.  The next economy will be a differentiated one, enabling cities to leverage their distinctive assets and attributes.  Think about work as the product of an eco-system of innovative firms, talented workers and supportive research institutions and intermediaries.  Find the right place with the amenities you crave and the thick labor market you need … and opportunity will naturally follow.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Bruce Katz.

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Topics: Innovation • Jobs • Youth

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soundoff (9 Responses)
  1. Delex.

    Good thinking, excellent words of advice. Youths from other parts of the world need to read this and emulate if they really have a vision of greatness for their countries and themselves as achievers instead of nuisances.

    September 16, 2011 at 4:55 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Children of a "tiger mom" won't have much imagination and innovative spirit, as they are drilled and disciplined like in an army. They are never nuisances. Yes; "don't be afraid to make stuff." Turn your home and the world upside down. That's the way to do things!

      September 16, 2011 at 6:07 pm | Reply
    • USA

      "Tiger mom" is ok, she give her Children solid "love and discipline" foundation. The problem with "Tiger Mom" is she is unable to let go when her babies are full grown, so they can have the freedom to develop their own thinking and personalities, like honesty, social skill, caring for others, bravery, etc.

      September 17, 2011 at 11:40 am | Reply
      • USA

        How I wish Chinese "Tiger Mom" produce more unselfish children, I am sure this will revolutionize China and the world.
        I have witness pockets of Chinese are doing just that. Today their children are in Africa, Central America, and Asia serving the poor. Go Chinese go!

        September 17, 2011 at 11:54 am |
  2. Kar

    I always thought internationalism would be increasingly important too.

    September 16, 2011 at 5:22 pm | Reply
  3. Stacie berdan

    I wrote a book specifically for 16-25 year olds today: GO GLOBAL! I agree education is first but then would follow that with internationalism, which includes learning a foreign language. Our global economy demands smart, innovative thinkers who can work and live cross-culturally. It IS the future. Check out my writing at:

    September 18, 2011 at 10:12 am | Reply
  4. Emily Karpov

    Thank God someone is advising my generation. I hate when I ask older, and supposedly people for advice, and I don't receive it. This is a great article which I enjoyed reading! Thanks

    September 22, 2011 at 10:56 pm | Reply
    • Emily Karpov

      I meant supposedly smarter people. Apologies for the mistake.

      September 22, 2011 at 10:57 pm | Reply
  5. Evan Merical

    The first advice I would offer is this: be wary of following the careers advice your college gives you. In journalism school, for example, students are routinely instructed that, though they may wish to write about development issues in Latin America, in order to achieve the necessary qualifications and experience they must first spend at least three years working for a local newspaper, before seeking work for a national newspaper, before attempting to find a niche which brings them somewhere near the field they want to enter. You are told to travel, in other words, in the opposite direction to the one you want to take. You want to go to Latin America? Then first you must go to Nuneaton. You want to write about the Zapatistas? Then first you must learn how to turn corporate press releases into “news”. You want to be free? Then first you must learn to be captive.'

    All the best

    April 27, 2013 at 1:57 pm | Reply

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