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On the Way to Work

By: Jon Thomas, EdD, and Pamela Barton

Young people, especially those who struggle with issues of attention and learning like ADHD, are increasingly caught in the cross hairs of some concerning and intersecting trends in post-secondary education and the world of work.

Over the past year in business magazines like Forbes and Inc have chronicled the decline in College enrollment, and the rising costs of college education. According to these reports, many young people are opting out of post-secondary education and training, choosing instead to go directly to work. Meanwhile the demand for unskilled labor is dropping and employers struggle to find qualified, responsible candidates with the requisite skills and training to fill their workforce needs.

The importance of college is decreasing in students’ minds.
Earlier this year, The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported a decline in College enrollment of approximately 300,000 students compared to 2018 enrollment. The percentage of young adults who consider attending college “very important” has dropped significantly since 2013.

The case for college is harder than ever to make.
Multiple interrelating circumstances explain this trend. Low unemployment and improved economy, lower birthrate, increasing costs of college, burgeoning college debt, low entry level wages for college graduates are but a few. But in general, students are having trouble finding compelling reasons to undertake an expensive and difficult academic path that offers little monetary benefit.

Employers can’t find the skilled workforce they need.
Meanwhile, employers in a job market approaching full employment, are experiencing increasing difficulty filling vacant positions. And they report encountering applicants who lack essential hard skills and work experience, as well as the soft skills needed for collaboration and teamwork, communications, problem-solving, creative thinking, and organizational skills required for today’s workplace. In short, employers are having trouble finding skilled and qualified people to fill jobs.

Against this backdrop, institutions of higher education are lumbering slowly into response mode. A recent Forbes article predicts a move toward greater job readiness in college, including increases in experiential work-based training,

coop work opportunities, credentialing acquisition, and portfolio development. Colleges will be providing or facilitating certifications, not just in Information Technology areas, but also in areas related to oral and written communications, conflict resolution, collaborative work, interpersonal relationships and other “soft-skills” areas.

In the face of these intersecting trends, a growing number of high school graduates are opting to go directly into the workforce in lieu of college or other post-secondary training. Students opting out of college is not alarming – not everyone needs or could benefit from college. But of greatest concern is that these unskilled entry level jobs do not pay a living wage and the demand for unskilled labor is declining fast. And all the while, employers struggle to fill jobs with educated, trained, qualified candidates.

Whether through college or training, post-secondary education is vital to obtaining and growing a sustainable career and lifestyle. And without it, young people face an uncertain future. Beyond the obvious and valid frustrations about college debt and the relative benefits of the effort further education requires, what else might explain this phenomenon of opting out? And more importantly, what can be done about it?

Students with ADHD are especially vulnerable in obtaining the skills desired by employers.
As students with ADHD are among those who tend to fail college and never try again or take longer to graduate, it’s an easy reach to note they are likely overrepresented among this concerning trend of evading higher education or training.

In many ways this makes sense – impulsive decision making for immediacy of reward often blocks a more practical path for students with ADHD. Continued sustained attention in academic environments after years of such torment weigh in low on the list of “what would be fun to do next.” And considering the outcomes they hear from students before them, it makes sense they might lose some hope and patience for adequately exploring career options and preparing for them.

They hear the statistics telling them how college graduates earn significantly more over a lifetime than non-graduates, and that college graduates fare better in times of recession and economic downturn. But for right now, after working so hard for so many years, why work so hard to get a college degree that most likely leads to a low paying entry level job?

But if we look deeper, the explanation appears more complex – and perhaps even paradoxical. What if ADHD students are making this impulsive career choice by default because they lack the requisite precursor skills to navigate today’s rapidly changing world of education and work? What if these same missing and undeveloped skills that lead to circumventing post-secondary education and training are the same requisite skills employers seek (and are not finding) in the workplace of today?

The skills for exploring self in the context of the world of work, deciding on a career, and planning and executing a plan to prepare for a career, require some of the same foundational skills needed to function well in the todays workplace – collaborative and teamworking skills, communications skills, problem-solving skills, creativity, and organization. The common denominators of these foundational skills include critical thinking, executive function, and social/emotional intelligence. These are all familiar areas of challenge for students with ADHD, both for developing these skills and for generalizing them into more challenging structures – like college and work.

For example, students who do better in college and emerge with a strong career path tend to be those who find mentors that guide them toward their dreams, engage in internships, and find other areas of work experience in their field of study. Though seemingly simple, these activities require complex social, organizational, and critical thinking skills.

Students with ADHD can be supported to find success in the workplace.
Solutions to resolving these foundational skills deficits tend to more long range if not forward-thinking.

More than ever before, students with ADHD need to find ways to improve and accommodate for related difficulties in critical thinking, social/emotional intelligence, and executive function – early in the transition process – as these are the precursor skills that will guide them effectively into sustainable and fulfilling careers.

Political solutions to academic content and process offer some hope. Practitioners who guide these students to the next steps are key as well. Efforts that bring these skills deficits into the IEP process, the focus of family planning for college, or areas of private counseling, academic coaching, or tutoring can bear significantly and positively upon outcomes.

In all cases, developing innovative methods for bringing greater focus to acquiring, utilizing and carrying these foundational skills successfully into new contexts are key to filling the gap between employer needs and student dreams.

Just as we use mnemonics to recall words and sequences, and music spontaneously recalls feelings, ADHD students need to develop and use heuristic language – anchored tags for recalling concepts that lead to engaging in conceptual and ordered ways of thinking.

In our program (The ADHD College Success Guidance Program) for example, students develop a post-high school plan of action using a heuristic we call Method, Motive, Opportunity. Modeled from forensic science, this simple tool invites students to consider a broader perspective with more variables for solving problems and attaining goals, while simultaneously providing a means of sorting these numerous variables.

  • “Method” keys exploring and inventorying the “how to do it aspects”, or skills required to accomplish a goal or solve a problem.
  • “Motive” brings the student into curiosity about the motivation needed to sustain effort with a set of tasks.
  • “Opportunity” leads to investigating whether all the elements of setting, timing, and resources are available to achieve the goal or solve the problem. In this way, the student develops a fuller picture and richer plan for moving forward.

Even with enlightened and innovative support and guidance, responsibility ultimately falls to the student to garner and embrace the vulnerability necessary to recognize these skills as diamonds in the rough that require some polish. And maybe with enough polish, they will see the larger picture of the emerging world of work, post-secondary education, and their ideal path through it all.

We are a uniquely integrated program of College Readiness & Success Training, Academic Coaching, Mental Health and Career Counseling for high school and college Students with ADHD.