Melissa Canney is the Director of Innovation Policy for ExcelinEd.
Here’s an embarrassing confession. I did not know what engineers actually do until my 3rd year of college. No, I wasn’t a student who fell through the cracks. I did well in math and science and had ongoing support from my family, teachers and school counselors. I even went to a university with a world-renowned engineering program. Yet for some reason I believed engineering was an endless series of problem sets that nerdy men completed in dark cubicles. I had no idea that engineering is about creatively using math, science and teamwork to solve problems that improve people’s lives.
If students with resources and support like me have such profound misconceptions about viable career options, can you imagine the lack of information and misconceptions for students with limited to no advisement or resources? How will they identify and navigate career pathways that both interest them and lead to good jobs?
School counselors, you say? Yes, they play a critical role but there are nowhere near enough counselors to provide the individualized advisement that every student deserves. In 2016-17, the national student-to-school counselor ratio was 455:1, nearly double American School Counselor Association’s 250:1 recommendation.
Being so deeply engaged in career pathway work now, I see how every single adult can – and should – play a role in helping students understand what people actually do in their careers. Students are empowered when adults engage with them, value their opinions and encourage them. The more often students engage with different adults about their future plans, the more likely they are to gather pearls of wisdom that resonate and help clarify their goals. Imagine if every adult in the U.S. committed to talking with one student per month about their future plans and goals!
There are many ways to encourage student career planning – the key is starting the conversation and keeping it going. Back to school is a great opportunity to engage with students and have these conversations. Here are a few ideas to help you:
States and policymakers should support all stakeholders in fostering these life-changing conversations. They can provide easily-accessible tools and labor market data for educators, parents and community members. They can also support training for all educators to become savvy advisers. Most importantly, they can increase awareness and elevate these conversations as a critical part of a statewide education and workforce development strategy.
Educators can integrate these conversations as part of lesson plans or classroom culture, and family/friends and community members can empower students in the course of daily life. Schools and districts can foster partnerships with local chambers and employers to provide both opportunities to learn about and engage in career opportunities, such as work-based learning.