Why Educators Should Expand Career Exploration for Students

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s a question that is so familiar it borders on cliché. But at its heart this question is an invitation. It invites children to consider important aspects of themselves — their interests, strengths, dislikes, and passions — and to try to imagine how those might fit with a future career.

For middle and high schoolers this question has the power to lead to success. During those years, students begin connecting the dots to their eventual careers and thinking about the pathways that might get them there. When asked, 66% of Naviance students said they were on a path leading from high school to a four-year college to a career. Twelve percent said they would attend a community or technical college prior to transferring to a four-year college, and eight percent planned to attend a community or technical college prior to entering the workforce.

This data suggests that, even though their plans and goals vary, most students are thinking ahead to a time beyond ninth grade, making a Career Action Plan a must-do for high-schoolers. For educators, this is a key opportunity to help ensure that students have the skills and preparation they’ll need upon entering the workforce via their chosen pathways. States like Florida and Texas have even provided funding for such efforts.

Career readiness encompasses more than simply selecting a future profession from a list. Comprehensive career exploration begins with students understanding their strengths and interests, and linking those personal qualities to future goals. They must go beyond their backyards to be exposed to careers that align with their interests and aspirations.

There are many ways that schools and districts can provide students with real-world career planning and perspective. First, they can connect career instruction and postsecondary data, which will help students plot out the best pathway to prepare for their chosen careers. Educators can also equip students with tools that help them understand who they are, what they like, and what kind of careers align with both. Finally, schools can support students by offering a variety of ways to engage in experimental career learning. Opportunities such as internships, job shadowing, and field trips offer invaluable up-close, hands-on experience.

Yet 55% of Naviance students reported too few of these career learning and exploration experiences. Students want these opportunities because they’re worried about achieving their career goals. They’re concerned not only about test scores and finances, but also about making the wrong career choice, or choosing the wrong pathway. When asked, 81% of students stated that they would like more access to internships; 68% would like access to more job shadows; 66% want more field trips, and 48% want access to more apprenticeships.

The importance of strong interpersonal skills in this context cannot be understated. Skills like critical thinking, teamwork, work ethic, and oral and written communication are key in the workplace and schools are making an effort to focus on them. In the Metropolitan School District (MSD) of Wayne Township in Indiana, for example, a daily advisory initiative helps students set goals, work on critical thinking, and practice executive processing skills to become ready for life and work after high school.

Career readiness defines the courses a student may take throughout middle and high school, the work experiences they pursue, and ultimately the training they will need – whether an apprenticeship, military service, certificate program, technical school, or a four-year college or university. States across the country are implementing standards that focus on the importance of career readiness, opening the door for schools and districts to instill the importance of job preparation early and often.

In Cook County, Illinois’ Township High School District 214, career knowledge is infused directly into the curriculum and future planning centers on clusters and pathways. By the time students reach early high school, they are building their course schedules around pathways of interest. The careers program at District 214 involves the entire school and extended community. With specific career-focused nights throughout the year, as well as intensive coordination among teachers and counselors within the district, students are finding it easier to explore, refine, and connect with their future professional interests. “We do not ask students to make a career decision at age 14; we ask them to begin thinking about it,” says Dr. Lazaro Lopez, Associate Superintendent for Teaching and Learning.

And that question is paying off. Since integrating career pathways into the everyday academic lives of students, District 214 has seen impressive results in support of their goals. In the Class of 2018, 95% of students identified a career cluster of interest prior to graduation and 32% participated in a workplace learning experience, up from 0% in 2014. Credit-earning has also spiked: 40% of the Class of 2018 earned dual credit in a career pathway course, compared with only 12% in 2013.

To learn more about the power of enhancing career exploration, read our case study on Sarasota County Public Schools, where 92% of all middle school students complete a personalized career portfolio before they leave for high school. And for a deep dive into the latest data on readiness programs throughout the United States, read our white paper, Trends in CCLR 2020.

Watch the on-demand Career Readiness webinar.

Topics k-12
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