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Counselor ventures out beyond her day job: Business helps student clients find their career path

August 27, 2007

One could say Barb Skinner works day and night helping confused teen-agers find the right career paths.

During business hours, she's a guidance counselor at Mount Vernon High School in Fortville. But evenings and weekends, she manages her own private career and college guidance firm, Career Planning Resources.

CPR, which uses both personality profiling and one-on-one interviews to help high-schoolers pick career paths that mesh with their interests and strengths, came about mostly through Skinner's own inability to blaze such a trail for herself.

When it came time for her to decide what to study in college, Skinner, 46, was at a loss. Her passion, basketball, wasn't exactly a moneymaker. Even though she was a 1979 Indiana All-Star who would one day be inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, there wasn't much of a demand for female pro hoopsters. She needed a backup plan. Unfortunately, there wasn't one.

"My dad said, 'Major in business,'" she recalled. "I said, 'What will I do with that?' He said, 'You'll figure out something.'"

Based on that dubious endorsement, she obtained a bachelor's degree in business administration from Butler University. Skinner then soldiered through most of the '80s and '90s working on the administrative side of medical equipment sales. She earned money and promotions but got little satisfaction.

"I didn't feel successful," she said. "I didn't feel like I was at the top of my game. I started calculating my retirement date. If I retired at age 65, July of 2026 was the date. And I thought, 'I'm never going to make it.'"

Her midlife crisis morphed into a radical midlife career change. She quizzed friends and experts about what they thought she might be good at, and they formed an unusual consensus-guidance counselor. So Skinner returned to Butler, earned a master's in school counseling, and has spent the last seven years talking with students-many of whom face difficulties unsettlingly similar to hers.

"They went to school and they got good grades, but they had no clue what they wanted to do," she said.

More attention

She sensed a big problem, but also a business opportunity. She decided to create a firm that provided the kind of intense, hands-on career guidance most high school counselors (including herself) don't have time to lavish on each of the hundreds of students typically under their care. Her roughly 100 clients have been subjected to a battery of tests and interviews that delve into the teens' personalities, interests, values and such seeming intangibles as their level of optimism and sensitivity. Parents fill out questionnaires appraising their progeny's abilities and mental state.

Skinner typically charges between $250 and $350 per student, based on the number and types of tests her clients desire.

CPR client Carla Alder signed up her 18-year-old daughter, Lauren. The high school senior's problem, Alder said, wasn't that she couldn't find a career; she was interested in too many-from interior design to restaurant or hotel management to her early front-runner, event planning.

"[Skinner] encouraged Lauren to meet with event planners," Alder said. "We have done that, and it's really been an eye-opener. Neither one recommended the job. They said it's very, very cutthroat. My daughter was really disappointed because it's really what she wanted to do, but now she's taking a second look at it."

While some students like Lauren might be interested in too many things, Skinner also gets plenty of kids who haven't given their post-high-school plans a second thought. Also, perhaps not a surprise, she spends a considerable amount of time talking some of them down from unrealistic career goals, like kids who blithely say they plan to play in the NFL even though they can't make their high school team.

"I never squelch a dream," Skinner said. "But I always say, 'That's good, that's interesting, but what would Plan B look like?'You kind of let those dreams fade by themselves."

She figured out fairly early that parents are usually more concerned about their children's futures than the kids themselves. Originally, she targeted her limited promotional efforts at students, but drew zero interest. So she switched over to parents, getting the word out by addressing PTO meetings and other school-based groups. Her phone soon started ringing.

"They want to make sure that when their child goes to a school, it's the right one and they're studying the right thing," she said.

Such concern is understandable, given what's at stake if they get it wrong. According to The Annual Survey of Colleges, published by The College Board, six out of 10 college students change their major at least once, and that one out of three don't finish their studies at the school in which they initially enroll. The cost of such flailing quickly adds up.

"You want to make sure you give the kid all the enthusiasm and the tools they need to make them feel like they're prepared and going in the right direction," Skinner said. "And that in four years they'll actually have a degree in something they want, and actually be employable."

'Exploratory studies'

It's a problem commonly seen by college counselors. At Butler, for instance, about 100 freshmen enroll each year as "exploratory studies students"-a fancy way of saying they don't have a major. According to Gary Beaulieu, director of internship and career services at Butler, plenty of students either don't arrive with a career in mind, or switch shortly thereafter.

"I think it's a lack of career preparation in the classroom," Beaulieu said. "Students aren't taught early on in high school how to figure out where their interests lie and how to choose a career based on them. I don't think they get guidance at home as well. Most parents don't know how to counsel a student and work with them."

His advice is for parents to meet with the high school guidance counselor as early as possible, to help assess what a teen's strengths might be and how to exploit them. Try job shadowing, and investigate Web sites such as career.missouri.edu, offered by the University of Missouri Career Center.

"I think it's never too early," he said. "There's nothing wrong with students in junior high beginning to think about where their interests lie and what types of careers might match them. They'll change over time-they always do-but getting kids to think about them is key."

Skinner holds the same view-and hopes her personal approach might someday blossom into a full-time business. She perceives her only local "competitor" to be former Butler professor Dr. Jack Fadely.

"I actually went to him in 1990 for assessment purposes and referred a tremendous number of clients to him throughout the years," she said. "Dr. Fadely has incredible insight and has built an incredible business over the decades. High school guidance counselors from all around refer to him. But I'm working hard to provide another option."

Skinner says she sets herself apart by emphasizing the need for "real world" input through job shadowing and business interviews. Since CPR (found online at useyourstrength.com) has operated slightly less than two years, there hasn't been enough time to see if the career advice she's given students has panned out. But she keeps track of them, nonetheless.

"People change, and there's no guarantee that the field of study you start in will be the one you finish in," she said. "As you are exposed to new things, you may be swayed slightly. But what you want to avoid are big career disruptions-like going from a business major to a high school counselor. Trust me, that's difficult to do."
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