Career exploration and guidance for students

08/21/2012  |  BY K.L. MICHAEL
Helping Students Select Undergraduate Programs

During the only formal conversation I had about careers in school, I remember the implication that career, job and occupation were synonymous. In that discussion, I was advised to focus on the future job I wanted. I told the guidance counselor I wanted to write for a newspaper and she agreed this was a great choice because I had received good grades in English courses. Within five minutes, our discussion had concluded and no additional options were presented to me.

Writing for the hometown newspaper was not something that sounded exciting to me, but I thought I could succeed at it. Independently, I utilized career guidance software to explore occupations; but, with little direction from a professional, its impact never reached its potential and l was never able to look outside of the “journalism” box.

I ended up graduating with a Bachelor’s Degree in a completely different area after changing my major eight times. In 13 years, I have held four occupations in four industries. I have related my career exploration experience to peers of my age and was shocked to hear almost every story mirrored mine.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics analyzed a group of baby boomers (persons born between 1957 and 1964) over a segment of their lives. A September 2010 update to this study revealed that these baby boomers held an average of 11 jobs from ages 18 to 44. Both the complete report and supplemental questions to its Current Population Survey highlighted the notion that workers are changing occupations significantly more than they were mid-20th century.

In that century, career guidance and exploration were far different than what they have become today. Career exploration was often a one-time event conducted outside of the classroom involving little hands-on experience. It defined your career as holding a few long-term positions in the same area and reinforced a career selection based solely on skills.

At the advent of the millennium, career guidance transformed. As the market radically changed, the need to train students for careers in different manners shifted. As we engage with students now, we must consider the following six goals for today’s career exploration:

The terms job, occupation, and career must be distinguishable.

Gone are the days when a student can prepare for just the job at the local bank. Gone soon will be the days where this student prepares for just the occupation of Savings and Loan Manager. The future calls for preparing students for careers—holding several positions in various occupations with related skills. Using today’s model on this student, it would be wise to prepare him/her with a common skill set to be used in different occupations within the bank (Teller, Savings/Loan Manager, Credit Analyst, etc.) as well as at other places of employment. He/She should be trained to become a Mortgage Officer, Financial Advisor, Stockbroker — all occupations using related skills.

A focus must be placed on developing transferable skills.

Providing students with the skills to perform work in a number of occupations and to function in diverse work environments requires the introduction and development of transferable skills. Transferable skills are basic work-related skills that can be applied in a number of settings occupations. Examples of transferable skills are: adhering to deadlines, motivating a team, persuading, or decision-making.

Career exploration must become an integrated approach and a multidisciplinary concept.

Students can no longer receive their sole exposure to careers in a session with the guidance counselor or at a career fair. Nor is a three-week unit on careers or a one-time assessment sufficient. Career exploration must be integrated into every school subject and educators must be able and willing to show the relevance between academic skills and concepts to specific occupations.

Providing career guidance and creating avenues for career exploration is a community responsibility. Counselors, teachers, parents, and community leaders should all take an interest in developing tomorrow’s workforce.

Every individual who touches a student’s life is a career guidance provider. Extending career exploration activities beyond the walls of the school is important and creating opportunities for students to engage with business professionals is encouraged. Facilitating discussions about students’ skills and interests with their parents is essential.

More attention must be given to a student’s interests.

Many students who have taken career assessments have taken skills assessments or aptitude tests. While it is important evaluate skills, it is also important for students to consider their interests. If students are passionate about the work they do, they may become more motivated to invest time and effort in activities that advance their career. Satisfied workers might be more likely to engage in continuing education experiences or mentor their peers.

We must engage students in career-oriented thinking at earlier ages.

Students first learn about careers at very early ages — often in the primary grades and informally. In these years, students start to conceptualize that their parents have jobs or perform certain tasks and they begin to think about job-related responsibilities for other high-profile adults, such as doctors, firefighters, actors, or musicians.

Students are exposed to career concepts at young ages whether we want them to be or not and it is important to develop opportunities for them to reflect on what they are informally learning. Unfortunately, a lot of what students hear and see is on television or in the movies where “career stereotyping” runs rampant. Gender, race, and socio-economic stereotypes often tarnish some of the earliest exposures students get to careers so it has become necessary to formalize career exploration activities at earlier ages to combat this.

Career guidance professionals have had several challenges on their hands in recent years. They must evolve their own personal practices in teaching about careers and also have to encourage their oftentimes less-than-willing colleagues to take ownership of providing career information. They have to obtain a variety of resources, with dwindling budgets, to help students engage in career-related learning experiences.

One resource that is widely used in the intermediate grades is Career Targets, a consumable workbook published by COIN Educational Products, Inc. This 52-page workbook features an age-appropriate career exploration and educational planning guide, with an interest assessment that students can complete independently in under an hour. A separate version, Career Targets for Transitions, is available and more focused on students with diverse learning needs.

This workbook is the perfect foundation for a complete career guidance program in middle school. It is rich with standards-aligned content facilitating integration of career concepts into the classroom. and contains activities meeting the goals of many federal, state and local curriculum initiatives and guidelines.

Career Targets is organized into seven sections focusing on the career-themed questions, such as “What is a career?,” “What are your interests?” and “How can you build skills for a career?” In answering these, students will engage in activities that cover many of the six goals of career exploration, including: an introduction to the world of work through exploration of career-related vocabulary a presentation of occupations in groups known as career clusters that highlight the importance of transferable skills guided activities that encourage the involvement of teachers, counselors, parents, and community members in career exploration and educational planning an integration of career exploration and academic concepts (math, composition, art, reading, technology) an analysis of interests and skills through assessment demonstrated connections between career exploration activities and real-world application of what has been learned

The workbook connects careers to education and aids students in completing the framework of a four-year high school planner and basic job application. Not only does the connection between school and work assist students in planning for high school, but it also begins to foster thoughts for post-secondary transition.

K.L. Michael, a Career Education Implementation Specialist, has 12 years’ experience in career research and education. For more information on how to obtain Career Targets or Career Targets for Transitions, please visit or call 800.274.8515.
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