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A Practical Approach to Career Education for K-12 Students

America’s K-12 schools typically provide little information to young people on potential careers. They also generally do not provide work experiences that help them understand practical pathways to jobs and careers.”

One would think that preparing students for their professional lives is an essential part of a good education. After all, isn’t building a career the next and necessary step after education is complete, whether after high school or later in a young person’s educational journey? Yet, all too often, American students are flying blind as they enter the workforce.

America’s K-12 schools typically provide little information to young people on potential careers. They also generally do not provide work experiences that help them to understand practical pathways to jobs and careers. This lack of information on potential careers reflects a disconnect between what Americans, including young people, want from K-12 schools and what schools provide them.

For example, the nonprofit Populace reports Americans’ number one priority for K-12 schools is providing young people with practical skills, but with only one in four saying they successfully do this. These skills include problem solving, decision making, demonstrating character, and doing basic reading, writing, and arithmetic. 

Gen Z high schoolers agree with this, according to a recent ECMC Group survey. This survey finds that they want practical knowledge, skills, and career guidance that offers them exposure to more training and career paths. These high schoolers are skeptical about a college degree’s value. 

And, according to a Morning Consult poll, less than half of Gen Z high schoolers report they had enough information to decide the best career or education pathway for them after high school. Two-thirds of high schoolers and graduates say they would have benefited from more career exploration in middle or high school. 

So K-12 schools are out of sync with what Americans, including young people, want from them. This disconnect costs students dearly: The result is that young people tend to struggle when transitioning from school to work, and this can take the form of lower wages when they begin work. 

Schools need formal career education programs from a child’s earliest years to provide him or her with many opportunities to integrate formal classroom learning with practical learning about careers and work. This includes internships and apprenticeships for older students, which have positive consequences for young people. For example, the United States Youth Development Study that follows those born in the mid-1970s to age 30 finds a positive relationship between working part time at ages 14 and 15 and those likely to agree at age 30 that they were working in a job they wanted. 

A Career Education Program 

A career education program has four goals for young people:

  • Ensuring they consider many career options through in-and out-of-school activities so they develop career ambitions. 
  • Preparing them to profit from career activities like internships, apprenticeships, and what comes after high school, whether a job, more education, or both. 
  • Ensuring they gain knowledge, skills, and information so they can imagine a future, plan for it, and develop the self-agency or action orientation they need to secure that future. 
  • Connecting them to professional social capital, or the mentoring relationships, personal supports, and other professional networks that help them throughout life. 

An effective program ensures that by the end of high school, young people develop career aspirations and have the wherewithal to continue acquiring the knowledge, skills, and relationships they need to reach their potential. The international 38-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has compiled approaches to career education used around the world. They propose a framework organizing career education activities by three categories: exposure, exploration, and experience. 

Exposure activities introduce jobs and careers to children and young people. These begin in preschool and can include, for example, reading books or telling stories about jobs and careers and visits from those who work in different jobs. Exposure also entails age appropriate outside-the-school experiences like workplace visits as young people move through elementary, middle, and high school. 

Exploration activities involve investigating work through in-depth research on (and evaluation of) specific occupations. This can include activities like volunteer work, job shadowing, resume development, and mock job interviews. These experiences typically begin in middle school and continue through high school.

Experience activities include work-based learning, in which young people engage in sustained and supervised projects and mentorships. This can take the form of unpaid internships and paid apprenticeships. These experiences are an options multiplier, creating bridges to other opportunities that lead to full-time jobs, more education, or both. 

Exposure, exploration, and experience help develop young people’s social networks and occupational identities and deepen their understanding of work. They foster young people’s capacity to aspire, create, and navigate the pathways that make a reality of their ambitions. 

Career Pathways Programs

School career pathways programs are an example of how schools in the United States are developing career education. They are typically middle and high school programs that engage young people in education, training, and work by connecting them with local employers. They include personal and career support services, like job placement. Finally, they build strong relationships with adult mentors. An earlier piece I did for Merion West provides multiple examples of these programs. Typically these programs have five features that recognize students need:

  • An academic core curriculum linked with employer needs that awards a recognized credential. 
  • Hands-on involvement with work and careers. 
  • A strong system of advising to navigate the many questions and issues they confront. 
  • An authentic civic compact between education, employers, and community stakeholders.  
  • Supportive local, state, and federal policies.  

The Benefits of Career Education

There are many benefits to career education programs. They nurture both the technical and material aspects of success and also its relationship dimensions. They help young people develop an occupational identity and vocational self, which gives them a better sense of their values and abilities. They foster local civic engagement from employers and other community partners. They create faster and cheaper pathways to jobs and careers. 

These programs are also much more than high school internships and apprenticeships. They expose young people to jobs and careers from their earliest experiences with the education system, building on that exposure so they explore and experience different jobs and careers as they pass through the K-12 system. This develops a young person’s capacity to aspire and navigate the pathways they must follow to achieve their aspirations so that they can reach their potential and succeed and flourish as adults.

Bruno V. Manno is senior advisor for the Walton Family Foundation’s education program and former United States Assistant Secretary of Education.

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