More than 50 educators, policymakers and business leaders attended American Student Assistance’s recent panel discussion on expanding career exploration opportunities to middle schoolers. The event, held at the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, brought together a panel of seasoned experts to share their own experiences about expanding career exploration to younger students, and put forth recommendations for how to reach even more students – and their influencers – moving forward.
Tim Consedine, Regional Economist from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), provided a framework for the conversation with an overview of employment projections, and the amount of education needed for entry-level positions in the fastest-growing jobs. Tim also demonstrated two popular BLS tools to help with career planning: Career Outlook, a compilation of articles released throughout the year about education, careers, and BLS data, and the Occupational Outlook Handbook, which provides a detailed look at individual occupations within an industry, including pay levels, similar jobs, and state and area data.
Next, Cathleen Finn, the community engagement director for Verizon, moderated a discussion with panelists Laura Dziorny of The Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy; Dr. V. Scott Solberg of the Coalition for Career Development and professor of education at Boston University Wheelock College of Education & Human Development; and Helen Russell of Apprentice Learning. The panelists had a wide-ranging conversation on how career exploration has changed over the past two decades, using early career exploration to prevent high school dropouts, individualized learning plans, the need to also educate parents about career pathways, challenges to getting employers involved in the process, and more.
“Career exploration ideally should be a student-driven process,” said Dr. Solberg, who sits on the advisory board for the national Coalition for Career Development. “It’s about building talent and skills, not course credits … it’s about seeing college and career ‘pathways’ as on ramps to discovering all kinds of different opportunities and possibilities.”
Solberg went on to outline a suggested model for career development in K-12 education: starting in middle school, a self-exploration of talents and examination of potential careers, followed by more specific career planning and management in the early high school years, and the integration of work-based learning into the latter portion of high school.
Helen Russell, whose Apprentice Learning partners with five Boston-area schools and 60 business partners to provide real-world work experiences for eighth graders, explained the importance of giving middle schoolers an opportunity to talk about their favorite topic: themselves. “Middle schoolers are very egocentric,” Russell said. “Activities and surveys that give them the chance to reflect on their own areas of interest and personal characteristics are very effective.”
Russell also stressed it was crucial to help middle schoolers develop their “signature strengths,” as well as employability skills and a general knowledge of the world of work: “How many of us walked into this building today and knew instinctively that we had to check in at the security desk and provide photo ID? These are the things of everyday work life that we now take for granted, but many middle schoolers have had no exposure to these types of work experiences.”
Laura Dziorny, now chief of staff or The Rennie Center and previously deputy chief of staff for Boston Public Schools, shared insights from the Center’s recent report, Career Pathways for Boston’s Opportunity Youth. “Opportunity youth,” commonly defined as 16- to 24-year-olds who are not in school or employed, face severe challenges in attaining good-paying jobs. Participants in the report’s focus group expressed sentiments like, “There is an expectation to know what you want right out of high school but nothing to help navigate that,” and, “High school doesn’t teach you about taxes, credit or mortgages. They don’t prepare you for the real world.”
All the panelists agreed on the need to bring parents, families and employers into the career exploration process, as well as the harmful effects of stereotypes and misperceptions on young students’ career plans. “For example, many students think of STEM careers in computer coding and computer science as jobs that are primarily solitary in nature, but in reality these jobs often require a great deal of collaboration and teamwork,” pointed out Cathleen Finn.
ASA hopes the event was just the beginning of a continuing dialogue on this important topic. “It was a great discussion about what is happening (and what should be happening) to ensure kids have access to the resources needed to explore their future,” said Julie Lammers, ASA’s vice president of advocacy and government relations. “The conversation validated the need for ASA to do this work, and we made some great community connections with people and organizations that can help in our efforts.”