June 2006 // Volume 44 // Number 3 // Research in Brief // 3RIB7

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Factors Influencing Career Choices of Adolescents and Young Adults in Rural Pennsylvania

Adolescent occupational choice is influenced by many factors, including life context, personal aptitudes, and educational attainment. Whether college-bound or work-bound, meeting the challenge of this developmental milestone is critical in adolescents' lives. The qualitative study reported here explored factors that play key roles in rural high school seniors and young adults career choice process. The cultural and social context of family and community were found to be instrumental in how youth learn about careers and influential in the choice process. Extension strategies that target parents and community to increase their involvement in youth career selection can promote sound career decisions.

Natalie M. Ferry
Coordinator of Special Program Initiatives
Penn State Cooperative Extension
University Park, Pennsylvania


Career development, for most people, is a lifelong process of engaging the work world through choosing among employment opportunities made available to them. Each individual undertaking the process is influenced by many factors, including the context in which they live, their personal aptitudes, and educational attainment (Bandura, Barbaranelli, Caprara, & Pastorelli, 2001).

A major turning point in adolescents' lives involves the career choice that they make while in high school. Frequently, it is viewed by family and community as a mere start to workplace readiness; however, this decision plays a major role in establishing youth in a career path that opens as well as closes opportunities. Given the differences in the social and economic context of college-bound versus work-bound adolescents (Bluestein, Phillips, Jobin-Davis, Finkelberg, & Roarke, 1997), a study was designed to explore the factors that influence rural young adults' selection of specific careers.


Focus group process was selected as the preferred research method because the study was seeking to uncover the nature and nuances that operate in young adults' lives during their career choice decision-making process. Focus group process is a non-directive means by which participants provide information without being directed to answer specific questions (Krueger, 1994).

Participants of the study's 12 focus groups were individuals from an 11-county rural area in Central Pennsylvania. Of these groups, seven were conducted with 98 high school seniors, three were with 50 graduating college seniors, and two with 24 employed young adults. The purposeful selection of the seven high school groups, which ranged from 10 to 17 participants, was based upon the size of the school's enrollment, type of curriculum, and the mean income level of the district's families (School Report Cards, 2002). The three college groups' selection, which ranged from 14 to 22 participants, was based upon location within the area. Selection of the two employed young adult groups, which included 12 participants each, was based upon type of employment and location within the area.

The high school groups were 44% male and 55% female, while the college groups were 42% male and 58% female. The young working adult groups, ranging in age from 25 to 35 years old, were 59% male and 41% female. The groups' racial and ethnic composition was 98% Caucasian, 1% Black, and 1% Hispanic.

The groups' interviews were conducted by an experienced moderator using opened-ended structured protocols that lasted an hour. The interviews were recorded, transcribed into a written format, and coded so that the emerging themes could be identified and summarized (Straus & Corbin, 1990).

Participants were asked:

  • What are the career/job goals you now are considering?

  • Who or what helped you learn about your choices?

  • Who or what has had the greatest influence on your employment decisions?

  • What are the barriers to achieving your employment goals?

  • Where in the future do you plan to work?

The following section reports the themes that emerged during the study. The themes are those most frequently reported throughout all of the groups. The study's themes provided a basis for dialogue that identified strategies area stakeholders used to increase assistance to youth in making career choices.


Throughout all of the groups, a consistent picture of the major influencers of young adult's career choices emerged. The interrelated nature of the groups' perceptions highlighted the importance family and community play in shaping young adult's career choices.

The major emerging themes from the focus groups include the following.

Interdependence of Family, School, and Community Culture

Young adults, through interaction with the context of family, school, and community, learn about and explore careers that ultimately lead to career choice. The interdependence of family, school, and community culture played a critical role in shaping the youth's occupational choice. The economic and social circumstances of the broader community colored and influenced the youth's perceptions of appropriate career choices.

Youth in communities of more affluence appeared to have more family and school support in career exploration, which resulted in consideration of a wider range of career options. Parents, followed by other family members, provided valuable learning experiences through their own role models and supporting activities that assisted in exploring career interests. Work-bound youth's parents frequently taught skills that provided youth with a broader understanding of their own aptitudes contributing to career choice. "My Dad works on big Caterpiller transmissions, and some my uncles do that kind of work. We would work together, and, you know, I learned a lot from him, how to do anything. This is why I'm a Diesel-Teck major."

Different Social and Economic Contextual Factors

College-bound and work-bound young adults are influenced by vastly different social and economic contextual factors in their pursuit of markedly different occupational paths while transitioning from school to work. College-bound and work-bound youth exist side-by-side in high school, but face the transition to the workplace in different time frames and with different expectations for career opportunities available to them.

College-bound youth had career trajectories that were future oriented, with the first step being college participation. "College gives me a chance to test out what I want to do. I can always switch majors. It's most important to graduate."

Work-bound youth, high school and applied college, occupational goals were identified by a specific type of employment that drove their skill development and educational attainment. "I had to know what I was going to do when I get out to choose a major for training. I knew what I was good at, so I choose welding." The transition for work-bound youth was more direct and dependent upon gaining employment that quickly shifted their roles from adolescent to adult, binding them to adult career expectations.

"Ideal Job"

The career choice that young adults make is embedded in their perceptions of the "ideal job" and their career decision-making maturity. Occupational choice is not a mere matching process; rather, it is a choice made in a context of many influencing factors. The perception of the "ideal job" acts as a filter for job appropriateness and influences the choice process. "I think, like you have an idea of what the perfect job is in your head, exactly what you want to get up and go do everyday."

Initial career decision-making is a cultural, developmental task that adolescents are expected to have accomplished by the end of their high school year (Super, Savicks, & Super, 1996). Within surveyed high schools, a wide range of difference existed in career choice maturity. In the most affluent schools, career decisions had been made, and students were preparing to enter college or advanced training. In the lower income schools, the lack of career decision-making was the norm.

The lack of family involvement in the career choice process appeared to be influencing these youth inability to make decisions. In these groups, youth perceived it was not their family's role to assist with their decision-making process. "We don't talk about it at home. Besides it's up to school to help me figure this out." It appeared that both the youth and their families were taking a passive role in making a future career decision and implementing a plan of action to achieve it.


Young adults recognize that barriers exist to implementing their future career choices and seek ways to overcome these obstacles. All of the youth voiced that the lack of financial resources to attend additional schooling or training was the major barrier. For college-bound youth, the second most identified barriers were college acceptance and being capable of graduating. Work-bound youth identified the lack of employment opportunities as their second barrier to achieving employment goals.

Out Migration

The out migration of young adults from the rural area appears to be a function of its ruralness, which offers limited employment opportunities. Rural youth face a conflictual dilemma of wanting to remain close to family and friends while believing that employment in urban areas offer more opportunity and income. The majority of the study's youth planned to leave the rural area to seek employment. "I'd like to stay, but in this area the salary that is offered is not what a 4-year degree deserves. Everyone wants to pay peanuts. So show me where the money is, and I will go there." Some work-bound youth planned to stay if they could find work in the area. Employment was the key to the decision to stay or go.


The study reported here confirms existing knowledge about the great impact that family, school, and community have upon young adults' self identity and career choice. All come into play in providing input into the adolescents' perception of self, educational efficacy, and vocational interests. The study adds to the understanding of the critical role parents play in shaping career choice. Through educational expectations and perceptions of occupational appropriateness, parents were found to have key roles in shaping career choices. The study's finding of the impact that the broader context of the school and community environment has in supporting or delaying career decision-making extends the understanding of the importance these entities have upon adolescents' identity and occupational goals.

The career choice that adolescents make is a decision that is influenced not only by their development but also by the context in which they live (Chen, 1997). The study extended the understanding of the impact that families and communities that are passive in assisting adolescents in making a career decision and implementing plans of action have upon adolescents' long-term occupational outcomes. In these communities, a context of uncertainty and the appearance of nonsupport prevailed, which led adolescents to postpone career decision-making and ultimately not to aspire to challenging vocational choices. This finding points to the importance of extending career educational efforts beyond adolescents to families and community.

Implications for Practice

These findings have implications for Extension educators who are being challenged to assume a more assertive role in providing programs to assist youth in career choice. Understanding the key role that family and community play in the process requires educators to reach beyond traditional youth audiences. Engaging parents in understanding the vital role they play in adolescents' occupational choice will challenge 4-H, as it has schools. Developing collaborative programs with innovative strategies that engage youth, parents, and community will require youth educators to become effective in managing collaborative partnerships that can help change stakeholders perceptions of their role in adolescent's career selection.

Developing programs and strategies that assist both parents and youth in exploring a wide range of occupations can open the door to emerging and non-traditional career choices. Providing adolescents with learning opportunities in which they are challenged to make sense of situations that they will encounter in various types of employment can provide them with a greater understanding of career options. Community-based learning that involves teens in solving real-world workplace problems directly connects them to the reality of various occupations. Engaging parents and community in active support of career exploration and choice provides the context that assists adolescents in making successful transitions into adult workplace roles.


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Chen, C.P. (1997). Career projection: Narrative in context. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 54, 279-295.

Krueger, R.A. (1994). Focus groups: A practical guide for applied research. Second Edition. London: Sage Publication.

School Report Cards, (2002). PA Department of Education: Harrisburg, PA. Retrieved September 26, 2002 from http://www.paprofiles.org/

Straus, A., & Corbin, J. (1990). Basics of qualitative research. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

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