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The college students career counselor Emily Reinert sees at Augsburg University in Minneapolis won’t hear much from her about passion. Instead they will hear more grounded advice along with the word vocation a lot — and clearly Augsburg is really onto something here.

Vocation may sound a little like a life of toil for little pay, but it is a very useful idea when approaching a decision on any kind of work. All it really means is work that is worthy of respect and with a reward that is bigger than just a paycheck.

Passion for your work sounds great, but by now it is pretty clear people have a tough time figuring out what will make them happy. It is a lot easier to figure out what will make them feel useful.

This conversation about careers with Reinert, assistant director of Augsburg’s Strommen Center for Meaningful Work, took place on campus just before the winter break. It is a time that is likely more stressful than relaxing for seniors as they begin to see graduation come into focus. Finding a place to go to work every day is no longer theoretical.

Augsburg’s talking of vocation in career planning and putting “meaningful work” in the name of her department have their origins in Augsburg’s long affiliation with the Lutheran church, she said. “But because of the diversity of our students, the way we talk about it, and the way it becomes meaningful for each student, it always takes on a different form,” she added.

The good news is that young people don’t have to try to divine this all on their own. In fact, one of the most appealing things about thinking about work as a vocation is what it suggests about the amount of effort it takes to discover one. At a minimum, students will need to learn from a lot of different people.

Many of the college seniors Reinert knows are very clear about a future path. As for others, well, they don’t have the first clue of what will come next.

Those without a plan for work seem to be missing “connections” most of all, Reinert said. They either could not see how their classwork could matter in the world of work or did not build deep enough relationships with professors or others who could have helped them find their way — if not with savvy advice at least with good questions.

It is always dangerous to generalize from a very small sample, but as an observer of 21-year-olds, including as a volunteer career adviser, I see the need to prod them a little to get them to go talk to people about work and careers. Their first choice for information is going to be a computer or smartphone.

Google is clearly useful in a career search. Yet wouldn’t it be good to find out what makes a social media marketer’s job satisfying by asking one?

Even the informational interviews many of us 40- and 50-somethings have with a young person exploring options may slip the rails after a few minutes. With one notable exception, college students coming downtown to the newspaper office to chat in the past few years mostly wanted to hear how they could get a job here.

Few of them seemed curious enough to ask “Why is yours a job worth doing?” or even “What do you actually do every day?”

They would hear from me, if asked, exactly why newspaper writing is the most challenging and rewarding work I have ever done, even though I haven’t been paid so little in 22 years. It is much more of a vocation than a job.

A vocation can certainly pay very well, of course, even though the term may suggest something like a commitment to a monastic life. It is true the word comes from the Christian religious tradition, although it applied to more than monks. Other faiths have similar concepts for people who find themselves drawn to roles of service, too.

One great thing to learn from the way people sought a traditional vocation is the lengthy process of interviews, study and other steps for the candidate to go through before they commit. It does seem unlikely anyone gets to join a monastery without having at least dropped by for a visit first.

“It’s a process,” Reinert said, of finding a way into a meaningful job. “It’s not like there’s a quick career research boot camp, and you’re ready to go now.”

Students are coached at Augsburg, as you would expect, to find out what classes or majors seem to fit a career interest, to meet people for informational interviews and to apply for internships in a field that looks interesting. Even volunteering can be useful, in part because it is another chance to ask the professionals what makes the job fun or meaningful.

Another idea a young job seeker may want to borrow from traditional vocation-seeking is asking people to help figure out what he or she really thinks. It is an old idea in the Religious Society of Friends, the Quakers, who established what they called clearness committees more than 300 years ago.

Apologies to all Quakers if this explanation seems rounded off too much, but the idea is that we all have an “Inner Light,” a sense of what we know to be best. The problem, and why we need help, is that there is so much noise in a busy life that it is all but impossible to figure out what we actually think.

So a group is brought together, of people with some life experience. They will know that it is not their job to give advice. Their first job is to ask questions, not as a grilling but as gently as possible.

Does the young person really have the right skills? Does the career choice pay enough to meet financial obligations? And what about it seems most rewarding? Then the committee members summarize what they have heard in response.

Hopefully this process helps clarify some thinking, but it might not lead to a rewarding and lifelong career. It is important to understand at the outset that the project to find the best fit with someone’s skills and values likely won’t end with the first job.

For some of us, the process took 29 years.

lee.schafer@startribune.com 612-673-4302