Career exploration for middle and high school students has always been a fluid process, and COVID-19 has thrown some certainties about that process into flux. For years, American Student Assistance (ASA) has been focused on a three-pronged goal of aiding students in knowing themselves, knowing their options, and informing future decisions. As educators at ASA, we understand that preparing students for the changing future is as important as ever.
The unique challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic have led to an unpredictable employment landscape. As unemployment rates in the United States surge past 15 percent, working-aged adults are feeling overwhelmed and confused. For students in middle and high school, it is difficult to anticipate what post-secondary education and career options will look like in the coming years.
Many companies and job fields have not only shifted where and how they work, but are coalescing behind an united effort to support throughout the crisis. Restaurants are providing meals to hospital workers; technology companies are providing services for free and rethinking how work-from-life looks; teachers are connecting with students virtually and parading through neighborhoods; and healthcare professionals are working tirelessly to combat COVID-19. Students can observe this rapidly shifting world-of-work and think about where they see their future selves. Using this pandemic as an opportunity to envision what impact they want to have can drive a student’s ambitions through high school and beyond.
Regardless of student ambitions, the steps to get there are less clear. The uncertainty that accompanies COVID-19 will linger far beyond this crisis, and that uneasiness is bound to have a profound impact on students. How can students, who are planning to enter a society where current college students graduate with an average of $29,000 of debt, actually make informed decisions when it feels like all that information has changed and continues to change?
In order to prepare the next generation of working Americans, it is crucial for schools and educators to support and adapt curriculum that addresses the changing landscape. While integrating career exploration instruction into content lessons may not seem like an immediate concern, prioritizing it in middle and high school can prepare students for long-term decisions.
For students to understand their goals, they first must understand themselves. Students can start this process of self-discovery with thorough evaluations of their skills and interests through self-assessments. In addition to connecting students to their interests, empowering them to explore those interests is critical to giving students ownership of their education. Students choosing what to learn and how they want to learn it through options, projects, and self-guided learning can increase confidence and sense of self.
As students are increasing their understanding of self, they should be provided with opportunities to contextualize themselves in the broader community. Cross-curricular lessons addressing current and future issues and trends build student awareness around real-world problems. Introducing unemployment rates and current job outlooks provides an opportunity for financial literacy instruction, where students can learn to create and maintain budgets, develop fallback plans, and determine student loan choices. Looking at job postings in a field and how they’ve changed in the last six months would be another way to engage with the material.
While the pathways are unclear for students, using this moment to understand themselves and their options can help them traverse the changing landscape. Students can be successful in the new normal when provided with the adaptable skills related to career exploration. By navigating these moments of crisis, students can be prepared to tackle the challenges to come as our next generation of leaders.