‘Helicopter parents’ are trying to help their children land jobs

Published 8:12 pm Wednesday, November 8, 2006

Some parents are writing their college-age kids’ resumes. Others are acting as their children’s “representatives,” hounding college career counselors, showing up at job fairs and sometimes going as far as calling employers to ask why their son or daughter didn’t get a job.

It’s the next phase in helicopter parenting, a term coined for those who have hovered over their children’s lives from kindergarten to college. Now they are inserting themselves into their kids’ job search — and school officials and employers say it’s a problem that may be hampering some young people’s careers.

“It has now reached epidemic proportions,” says Michael Ellis, director of career and life education at Delaware Valley College, a small, private school in Doylestown, Pa.

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At the school’s annual job fair last year, he says, one father accompanied his daughter, handed out her resume and answered most of the questions the recruiters were asking the young woman. Even more often, he receives calls from parents, only to find out later that their soon-to-be college grad was sitting next to the parent, quietly listening.

Jobs counselors at universities across the country say experiences like those are now commonplace.

“My main concern is the obvious need of the students to develop their independence and confidence,” says Kate Brooks, director of the Liberal Arts Career Center at the University of Texas. “I think it’s great that parents want to share their advice — and even better that students of this age are willing to listen — but I think the boundaries get crossed sometimes.”

Donnell Turner, assistant director of the career center at Loyola University in Chicago, is just starting to notice the trend. He couldn’t believe it when he saw the first of a few parents walk into a recent job fair for students.

“What is she doing here?” he thought to himself. Some students had the same thought.

“My parents are very supportive, but they’re certainly not telling me what to do,” said Ferris Wilson, a senior majoring in accounting and finance at Loyola who navigated the job fair by herself.

That said, she has seen many examples of parents who “dictate every move — even what their kids major in.”

Often parents don’t even know they’re overdoing it. And it’s not just at college.

Barbara Dwyer, a career coach in Sacramento, Calif., says she spoke at a Future Farmers of America meeting and met a mother whose son wanted to raise sheep for a living. The mom excitedly told Dwyer how she had done extensive research to find out what it would take for her son to get started in the business.

“I asked, ‘Why did YOU do it?’ And she looked shocked,” Dwyer says.

Indeed, while many people have heard about the helicopter parent phenomenon, it’s tough to find moms or dads who consider themselves one.

“You know, somebody called me that,” says Diane Krier-Morrow, whose son recently graduated from Saint Louis University and is now teaching English in Taiwan. She came to the Loyola job fair to get information from employers for her son and brought copies of his resume to hand out.

“But believe me, I’m just going to hand him the bag,” she said of the stack of jobs brochures and business cards she had gathered. “The rest is up to him.”

She says parents sometimes worry that today’s young people aren’t as motivated to work as previous generations, so they feel inclined to do some nudging.

Marisa Wetzel, who graduated from New York University in May, knows what that’s like. During her job search, her parents called her frequently to track her progress and to suggest friends who might have connections.

“Obviously, it can get a little annoying at times — but it’s done with my best interest at heart,” says Wetzel, 22. A month after she graduated, she landed a job as a publicity assistant in New York City.

She and other students say they use their parents as sounding boards because they trust their opinions — and don’t want to repeat their mistakes.

But Ellis, at Delaware Valley College, says some students are too dependent.

He puts some of the blame on baby boomer parents, who have a reputation for coddling their children, but even more on the students.

“They’ve become so accustomed to having their parents take care of every aspect of their lives — and not assuming any responsibility or taking any initiative for themselves — that they expect their parents to continue to take care of things for them,” Ellis says.

Eileen Tarjan, a human resources specialist at NCH Marketing Services in Deerfield, Ill., says she gets tired of making offers to students, only to hear them say, “Can I have the weekend to talk about it with my parents?”

“Why can’t they just say, ‘Let me think about it,”’ she asks.

And it doesn’t stop there. A few colleagues have told Tarjan that parents are now calling to discuss their kids’ first performance reviews.

She shakes her head: “It’s unbelievable.”

On the Net:

Dwyer’s site: http://thejobjourney.org