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Within Reach: Early and Ongoing Career Exploration for All Students

February 28, 2022

At a Glance

JFF’s Possible Futures curriculum can help schools and educators create career exploration programs and systems that begin in the middle school years, but it’s just one piece of the puzzle. In an inequitable society, we need systemic strategies to ensure that all young people have opportunities to learn about the critical role of productive work in all human lives, including theirs.

Contributors Practices & Centers

Lately I’ve been in meetings where the icebreaker question is “What did you want to be when you were a kid?” The responses—a zookeeper, an astronaut, a fighter pilot—often elicit laughter because they’re so far removed from the roles my colleagues and I now find ourselves in. And the laughter isn’t unexpected, because it seems to have long been a common assumption that kids aren’t expected to have meaningful or realistic answers to that question. However, times have changed and there’s a growing understanding that by middle school, it’s critical to be engaging students in conversations about career pathways, the changing nature of work, employability skills, and perhaps most important, how their interests and their sense of self matter to and guide their educational and career choices.

Part of the trend is K-12 institutions and systems shifting their focus from “college ready” to “college and career ready” and providing resources for individualized career or education plans as a key strategy to increase the chances that students will make intentional and well-informed transitions from high school to postsecondary education and the world of work.

Yet there is still a long way to go to provide developmentally engaging and meaningful career exploration and preparation to all young people. While districts and schools are increasingly taking advantage of resources such as state-sponsored career planning websites, when you ask most kids about careers in specific fields, you’re still likely to hear generic responses like “doctors and nurses” for health sciences or “good hacker” for cybersecurity. And adults’ answers to those same questions likely aren’t much different. Few people talk about the critical role of productive work in human lives, few families understand the future labor market or even the current one, and educators typically aren’t very familiar with high-growth industries and know little about labor market trends. To add to the challenge, there is a national shortage of counselors and a general lack of educators with career counseling or advising experience.

There is still a long way to go to provide developmentally engaging and meaningful career exploration and preparation to all young people.

At Jobs for the Future (JFF), a national nonprofit aimed at achieving economic advancement for all, we became more acutely aware of the importance of students engaging in career exploration at a young age almost a decade ago through the Pathways to Prosperity Network, an initiative that engages states and regions in developing “pathway” strategies to ensure that students have access to educational options that integrate academic and technical skills and lead to a postsecondary credential with value in the labor market.

We recognized that there was a need to equip a broader array of educators—teachers, afterschool instructors, advisors—with high-quality career exploration resources, so we decided to do something we don’t normally do: create a curriculum. With funding from the Noyce Foundation and input from our Pathways network, we spent several years developing the Possible Futures Career Exploration curriculum, a free resource for grades 6-10 that educators can use as is or adapt as needed to accommodate their unique circumstances, including the resources they have access to and the needs and interests of their students. It’s designed for non-experts, so it’s not limited to trained career advisors or certified career and technical education instructors.

Putting Young People in the Driver’s Seat

Designed to capitalize on the innate curiosity and growing self-awareness of adolescent learners, our Possible Futures curriculum complements static tools such as career interest inventories and lifestyle calculators.

It includes coursework in the following categories that puts young people in the driver’s seat and encourages them to try things out, so they can understand where they might fit in the world of work:

  • Employability Skills for Success: Lessons designed to help learners develop essential employability skills through activities focused on growth mindset, collaboration, communication, and self-regulation.
  • Lenses on the Future: Coursework that guides learners as they chart paths to future success through the lenses of self, security, and society by identifying their personal interests and strengths, considering the lives they want to lead, and exploring potential ways they can contribute to society.
  • STEMploration: Four units in which learners explore the roles of STEM professionals in four high-wage, high-demand industries—information technology, health sciences, cybersecurity, and engineering and design—by tackling challenges based on real-world problems through project-based activities.

A Curriculum Alone Isn’t Enough

Despite increasing awareness of the need for career exploration before high school and the availability of resources like our Possible Futures curriculum, challenges persist. Notably, career exploration still often gets put off until the tail end of high school or even later. This “too little, too late” approach can have serious equity consequences because, without formal career exploration activities, young people from affluent backgrounds may learn about high-wage careers through their families’ networks but young people from families with fewer resources and social capital often don’t get those opportunities.

At JFF, we recognize that resources like a new curriculum are not enough. In an inequitable society, there’s a need for a systemic strategy to ensure that every young person can begin engaging in ongoing career exploration activities starting at the age of 11 or 12. Here are four types of promising approaches that we’ve seen through our Possible Futures work:

  1. Alignment. Many states are encouraging schools and educators to begin offering career planning programs to students of middle and elementary school age, but they’re not aligning those efforts within a holistic strategy, which limits their value. Incorporating a curriculum like Possible Futures into those activities can make them more effective by encouraging young people to take ownership of their futures. Possible Futures partners in Massachusetts and Arizona understand that, and they’re aligning the curriculum to their statewide career exploration initiatives: My Career and Academic Plan and the Education Career Action Plan, respectively.
  2. Integration. Possible Futures partners in New York City and those involved in state afterschool STEM networks around the country are integrating Possible Futures into existing programs rather than treating the curriculum as an add-on. Some schools are using Employability Skills and Lenses on the Future lessons to support the social and emotional learning goals of their advisory programs. They’re also using STEMploration lessons to add a career exploration component to science and entrepreneurship classes. And afterschool programs are integrating Skills and Lenses lessons into courses dedicated to “character and leadership development” and using them to support high school students who are learning to teach engineering and provide mentorship to younger students.
  3. Student-Driven. As Possible Futures partners help students learn about and reflect on STEM careers and occupations, they are scheduling presentations by guest speakers, setting up workplace tours, and designing other work-based learning opportunities that are related to the topics students say they want to explore further.
  4. Technology-Based. In October 2021, JFF and two partners—the Center for the Future of Arizona and Arizona State University—released a digital version of the Possible Futures curriculum that supports in-person, remote, or hybrid learning models with synchronous and asynchronous engagement. We are working to get this free resource into the hands of system partners for use in classrooms, outside of school, and in extended learning settings.

A Lifelong Process

JFF has identified career and education navigation as one of our organizational priorities for 2022 and beyond. We see navigation as a lifelong process that must be built into educational and workforce systems, and we know that the earlier students begin to learn about the need to be “future ready” and to see themselves in the career driver’s seat, the more likely they will be to chart career and learning paths and pursue fulfilling work.

As we continue to support and advocate for the adoption of systematic strategies, we are grateful to our partners and others that share our commitment to making career exploration a common and compelling element of learners’ educational experiences.

Through the efforts of organizations like the Center for the Future of Arizona, Arizona State University, the New York City Department of Education, ExpandED Schools, Charlestown High School, and the STEM Next Opportunity Fund, Possible Futures is being piloted in a wide range of settings—in classrooms, as part of afterschool activities, and in summer programs—throughout the state of Arizona and in Boston, New York, and other states and regions. And it’s especially rewarding to see that the Possible Futures curriculum has proved to be flexible and accessible enough to be used by various types of educators with a range of skills, including teachers, advisors, youth workers, and counselors—all of whom can serve as students’ guides and co-learners about the current and future world of work.

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