Facing uncertainty: How local high school students plan a career in the midst of a pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the career paths for many, but for local high school students just starting to plan their future, these decisions can be tricky.
Jessica Walter, director of School Counseling and College and Career Readiness for Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools, said many students have been simply just trying to figure out their course selections for the coming year. Gov. Ralph Northam closed schools in March for the remainder of the year but this left many students in the middle of the course selection process.
Conversations about career and post-graduation options have been delayed as a result. Walter said many of those students will start the discussions again when they return in the fall, at which point counselors will have a better idea for how or if they’re changing their career goals.
But planning for the future is something WJCC starts early, with students planning an academic and career plan in seventh grade that helps them to discuss their goals and how to meet them. The district also has a career coach who works year-round with students and families to help them understand their options, Walter said. 
“This isn’t a new topic for counselors,” she said. “It’s part of the school counselor’s role to talk about careers and planning…so if a student’s interest has changed, it’s part of our training to discuss those changes and interests.”
While in the past high school students might not have paid attention to the economy, the current group of students is more aware of their economic standpoints than ever before. Students are encouraged to look at the surrounding and personal economics during a required course on personal finance and economics while planning for their future careers.
“The knowledge is important whether the economy is bad or not,” Walter said. 
Walter said she’s never been through a pandemic, but based on a prior experience she expects students and families to start having more conversations about the finances surrounding post-secondary education. 
The district works with the Great Aspirations Scholarship Program to help families understand their financial options and futures, which could prove to be even more helpful during a time of economic uncertainty.
There might also be more students who look into trade schools and related fields. But this has been a growing trend nationally, she said, as many areas realize there aren’t enough skilled laborers to fill the growing need. 
WJCC has also partnered with Thomas Nelson Community College to offer new health care courses for students in the coming school year. Walter said while planning for this program began before the coronavirus, she expects the pandemic will cause students to be more aware of the need for health care professionals in the community. 
But counselors don’t direct students to particular jobs that might seem more lucrative. Instead, they look at the students’ aspirations and interests and see how it might best fit with a particular career choice. Counselors then have discussions with students about the reality and prospects of the various professions.
Counselors are preparing for students to return in the fall with a variety of different questions and concerns. Walter said it won’t be until school starts again that there will be a better idea of how students are changing their career decisions. 
“It’s all about meeting students’ needs,” she said. “It’s an individualized process to help achieve those goals based on their interests.”
Katherine Goff, the spokeswoman for the York County School Division, wrote in an email Monday that she was unable to find counselors to speak with WYDaily for this story.
“For the career paths, we are having a little more trouble with that as those conversations were not necessarily occurring with our counselors in the last few weeks/months,” she wrote. “Our team feels like this may be better served at the college level.”
WYDaily multimedia reporter Julia Marsigliano contributed to this story.