Harvard or McDonald's?

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Harvard or McDonald's seems like a ridiculous proposition, but it's been my experience that these are the sorts of poor options given to some high-school students by their parents or teachers.

I believe that a vast majority of students are capable of starting careers and following alternative paths to satisfying, well paying jobs that they enjoy.

Apprenticeships are an excellent place to start looking if you don't think college is for you, but there are also a lot of non-trades careers where employers prefer work experience and talent over education.

At my place of work, we take in ambitious high school students for co-operative education. Depending on what career they're pursuing, depends on who they're trained under. I am always given students who want a career in computer science, graphic design, creative writing or marketing.

I've had two students recently who have excelled in their co-operative job roles way beyond their peers and my initial expectations.

The first is a graphics designer. We'll call him Eric to keep him anonymous, and he came into my workplace with a good portfolio and great Photoshop skills. Straight out of the gate I had Eric follow some different tutorials to get caught up with the latest trends in web design and some nice modern logos. Eric worked independently, was able to solve problems quickly, and provided me excellent designs. I used a lot of his work in production sites and even met clients with him.

When Eric's co-op was coming to an end, we offered him a job. "Graphic Designer" would be his title and he could work remotely from his house, while improving his skills independently as I had witnessed him do throughout his co-op. I showed him sites like Elance and fiverr where he could make additional money and get direct customer experience too.

With the skills Eric already had it was a no-brainer that he was ready for the workplace. With some experience working with clients and reading tutorials in his spare time, he would have an extremely impressive portfolio of satisfied customers and a catalogue of impressive artwork.

Instead, Eric had chosen to go to school to learn how to become what he already was. Now, with growing student debt and no customer experience, his life stays on hold until he leaves college and begins working.

A graphic designer is an excellent example of a career path in which school grades or programs taken mean nothing. I'm going to hire a graphic designer who can produce designs that wow our customers and can meet deadlines over one that spent his/her time in school.

The next student up was a computer programmer, we'll call her Caroline. Caroline was familiar with a few languages she had learned through independent study. Slightly more green than Eric, Caroline was still very capable of continuing her learning without incurring an unneeded student debt.

I told Caroline to continue to practice her craft and wrote her a list of progressively more difficult tasks to complete programmatically. I showed her some online resources to study from to learn proper coding standards and techniques, and gave her some ideas on how to build out an impressive coding portfolio (contributing to some open source projects, completing jobs on Elance or fiverr, and helping people answer questions on sites like Experts-Exchange or StackOverflow).

Caroline went to college in search for a computer science degree. After a year of learning about the history of programming, some basic Java she already knew and some calculus, she decided to stop being a student of that college and instead she pursued a career as a computer programmer.

This is not an anti-college rant, as certain careers require a degree. I also don't want to sell short the experiences and connections you can make in a college environment.

The point I want to try to get across to high-school students is that college is not always necessary. Also, if you are attending or planning to attend college, you should still be doing work to master your craft outside of what's in your textbook. Since one third of college-educated workers do not work in occupations related to their college major, I'll give you something to think about. When you graduate, what is going to separate you from every other student in that classroom? You're all likely going to be applying for the same positions. Be unique, be ambitious, do something different.