Finding Career Happiness Is Not Easy

I preach how important it is to find career happiness and fulfillment, but I understand that it might not be an easy endeavor. I watched a sobering PBS Frontline documentary Two American Families, which chronicles two families struggling to survive in Milwaukee. Bill Moyers interviews the families spanning a little more than a decade. What is clear from this introspective view of these families is that many American parents do whatever they can to put food on the table, pay a mortgage, and support their children – so finding career happiness is not a focal point. And the odds are stacked against their children because they do not have the opportunity to focus on education rather than the daily drama of surviving and also have no future assurances.

During most of the ten years, the four parents hop from one job to another getting paid around minimum wage and most of the jobs are less than ideal. Their struggles are real and deep: divorce, home loss, and neglected children (though clearly loved). However, in the end, I think each parent found a career that fits their strengths (at least in my brief assessment from the documentary): preacher – a hard-working optimist, realtor – a personable seller, nursing home attendant – a caring nurturer, and mechanic – a crafty handyman. I admire the parents’ fortitude and sympathize for the children. The parents hope their children become better off than them.

I think a career plan based on a skill set and an action plan to build skills, as proposed in a skills-based approach, might be an effective way to give teenagers guidance and direction. While in high school, students identify their competencies and passions and match them with careers in demand – so they increase the likelihood of finding future employment. There are many ways to build skills and going to a four-year college is not necessarily a requirement, though it is not a bad thing to aspire to. There are also certifications, apprenticeships, and two-year degrees. According to a recent Gallup poll, American workers with only a high school diploma were slightly more engaged than those with college or postgraduate degrees.[i]

The eldest son in one of the families is waiting to start his family until he is financially stable to support one. This is a wise decision. Many young adults chase the American dream of buying a home, getting married, and having children, but have not made the necessary investment to realize it. Building a skill set is a significant financial and time commitment. With these two families, the parents lived more than ten years scraping by to raise their children and had little opportunity to grow themselves. Young adults should concentrate on building technical and transferable skills as a strong foundation for their career, and this should have priority over all other aspects of their life; there is too much at stake. Start a family and buy a house once they are established with their careers.


[i] Shane Lopez and Preety Sidhu. “College-Educated Americans Less Engaged in Jobs,” Gallup.  July 18, 2013.

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