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Charting Career Paths--Early

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For years, high school students have been asking us to tell them exactly what the things we have them learn in school have to do with what they'll need to know in the real world. And as U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich has pointed out, we've had a hard time answering them.

The first article in Education Week's "Learning To Earn'' series ("Bridging the Gap,'' Jan. 26, 1994) takes a comprehensive look at the variety of approaches dedicated educators, and employers, are working on to help students make a successful transition from school to the workplace--apprenticeship, tech-prep programs, career academies, cooperative education, to name just a few.

But in almost every discussion of problems and solutions in the school-to-work transition, a critical piece is missing. It involves the process by which students get to the point where they can decide which apprenticeship program might be appropriate for them, or what career major they want to pursue, or whether or not they want to invest in the kind of education or training required for a specific career path.

The best school-to-work transition programs in the world will be ineffective at best and useless at worst unless students have a good idea before they enter them what they want to do, what career path they want to follow. There is recognition of this important component at the national level in school-to-work legislation pending in Congress. The proposed "school-to-work opportunities act'' emphasizes the importance of career awareness and career exploration at an early stage and an initial selection of a career major by at least the beginning of the 11th grade.

Making the school-to-work transition work for students means that we have to help them learn how to explore their own interests and aptitudes and link them to possibilities in the workplace. We have to help them use this information to discover which career paths they might want to pursue, and then to make decisions about which to choose. But we can't wait until students enter high school. If we do, they won't be prepared to select the appropriate courses of study or make initial career-training commitments.

The experience of Annette O. Watson, the tech-prep coordinator for the Wake County school system in Raleigh, N.C., is a case in point. Ms. Watson says she developed a comprehensive tech-prep program that she thought would be the best in the country--course curricula developed by specialized curriculum committees; articulation agreements negotiated with a community college, a four-year college, and North Carolina State University; brochures, posters, and publicity; informational meetings and television appearances.

All the components for a successful program were in place, except one: students. They were just not prepared to commit to two to four years of training for a specific occupational field about which they had little or no information. Ms. Watson went back to the drawing board and organized a career-development-planning committee that came up with a program. It involves a comprehensive career-development approach that begins at the middle school level.

The career-development decisionmaking process is not ancillary to successful school-to-work programs, it is the cornerstone. The process through which each student learns how schooling relates to work involves not only specific school-to-work programs like tech-prep or youth apprenticeship, but comprehensive career development. Career development links education and work. It helps students acquire skills that will assist them in making decisions about their worklife. It is a process that should be incorporated into every elementary, middle, and high school in the country.

Unfortunately, there's considerable confusion about what career development is--the terms career development, career guidance, and career counseling often are used interchangeably, and while they are closely related, there are critical differences among them. Career development is the broader process by which an individual develops and refines self and career identity, explores career options, and makes decisions. Career guidance, on the other hand, is an intervention to help individuals manage their career development. Career counseling involves communication between counselors and students regarding the array of factors involved in choosing and planning careers.

Effective career development involves a comprehensive, systematic, sequential approach. It must address three broad competency areas: self-knowledge and self-awareness, educational and occupational exploration, and career planning and decisionmaking. There are model programs and materials that have been developed through the collaboration of the counseling and education communities, along with federal and state participants, that spell out this process.

The National Career Development Guidelines, for example, combine guidelines for career development at each developmental level with resource materials, technical assistance, and training programs to help states, school districts, and schools integrate competency-based career development into their educational programs. Competencies that students need to gain at each level, beginning with elementary schools, are identified. A three-step process is spelled out, including planning, developing, and implementing career-development standards. Specific guidelines are available for elementary schools, middle and junior high schools, high schools, and adults.

At the elementary level, the focus is on awareness--helping students learn about the world of work. The idea is not to help them choose an occupation or career, but to help them become aware of the kinds of work that different people around them are doing. We recommend that school counselors and classroom teachers work together using the guidelines to plan ways to integrate career-development activities into the ongoing educational program.

At the middle school level, the focus is on exploration. The task is to help students become aware of their interests, aptitudes, and abilities and begin thinking about education and careers. There are unique opportunities for integrating career development at the middle level. Through team-teaching, a group of teachers can work together to infuse information about careers into the educational program, with the school counselor serving as a resource person. Using the National Career Development Guidelines, the Oklahoma Department of Vocational-Technical Education has developed and published guidebooks for use at the elementary, middle, and high school levels that provide practical steps for integrating career-development activities into mathematics, science, language, arts, and social studies. There are many other examples of these kinds of efforts.

At the high school level, the emphasis during the first two years should be devoted to further exploration of career possibilities. There are excellent tools for doing this. Computerized Career Information Delivery Systems, for example, allow students to use a computer to request information on specific occupations, or match personal characteristics with possible occupations. The systems contain information about writing resumes, financial-aid programs in a state, and other kinds of career information. Students who decide to enter a school-to-work program need to spend their junior and senior years in preparation, including developing occupational skills, applying academic theory in real-work situations, and mastering the basics of the workplace.

Some schools are using a career-planning-portfolio approach. The "Get a Life: Your Personal Planning Portfolio,'' developed with the American School Counselor Association, is one example. It's a personalized, sequential career-planning journal that guides students through the career-development process and helps them relate their education to career interests and aptitudes as they progress through school and beyond. The portfolio is designed for use in an educational setting, with coordination, direction, and guidance provided by counselors and teachers.

The point is that you do not have to start from scratch. You can build on resources that have been developed and proved successful. The goal must be that every student understands the connection between education and work and develops the knowledge and skills needed for successful career planning--and that includes understanding the influence of a changing economy and workplace on those plans. Achieving this goal requires work--by counselors, teachers, principals, school boards, employers, parents, students--everyone.

The reason we've always had such a hard time answering students' questions about the relevance of what they're learning in school to what they will need in the workplace is that the answer is different for every student. In fact, we can't give them the answer. But we can help them find it for themselves. We can help them discover their strengths and talents. And in doing this, we will be helping them learn how to make responsible decisions about their lives. While their early career plans may change, the decisionmaking process they learn will serve them throughout their lives.

Juliette N. Lester is the executive director of the National Occupational Information Coordinating Committee in Washington.

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