Educating Youth for Careers: Are We Overprescribing the Pathway?

July 2021
illustration of college grads

My former college roommate Doug is a managing director at a large corporate wealth management firm. We caught up recently on a Zoom call to talk about life and work. Following family updates, I shared how my research in career and technical education has led me to focus on the development of college and career pathways for youth. Specifically, how we might better help young adults learn the skills they need to transition from high school into postsecondary education and/or work.

This led Doug to reflect on his own career path. While many people find their career by accident, he joked that he always dreamed of the day that he could sell alternative investments to institutional clients. Though he doesn’t hate his job, it’s not what he thought he’d be doing as an adult when we were back in school.

To be fair, I can’t say I ever aspired to work at an educational nonprofit. I wanted to be a doctor. And so in college I majored in biology and took a work-study job at a nearby Veterans Administration hospital doing medical research. Although I eventually dropped out of the pre-med program, I still came close to achieving my dreams—after teaching high school biology for three years, I enrolled in a Ph.D. program in educational policy. Now I am a doctor. It’s just that my prescriptions are more like “read two policy papers and call me in the morning.”

I share all this as a way of thinking about the direction we’re moving in education. Not long after the release of the 1983 “A Nation at Risk” report, the policy mantra became “college for all.” All youth needed strong academics to prepare them to enroll in a four-year college or university. Following the economic recession of the early 2000s, the pendulum began to swing in the other direction. Policymakers began pressing for youth to be better prepared for immediate employment—what you might call the “apprenticeship for all” movement.

Fortunately, we now seem to be swinging back to the middle, with the goal of preparing all youth to graduate high school with both college and career options. To do so, many states are passing legislation to incentivize the award of postsecondary credit and/or an industry certification. While this is better, it feels like another overreach.

Education Northwest is currently working on a project that engages industry representatives in validating the technical skills youth learn in career and technical education programming. The intent is to ensure that the standards used to organize high school instruction are valued by employers.

To guide this work, we recently asked employers what they look for in entry-level workers. What we consistently heard was perhaps best summarized by an employer in the building trades:

Our main focus when hiring a new, entry-level carpenter is that they: (1) show up on time—every day; (2) come with a good attitude and open mind; (3) have basic math skills for the trade; (4) can read a tape measure; and (5) can safely operate hand and power tools. We can teach the other specifics of the job (concrete, framing, drywall, ceilings, etc.) if they possess the first skills.

Might we be overthinking our expectations of youth? Clearly there are benefits to offering high school students advanced industry certifications and technical college credits before they graduate. However, the time it takes to teach to this depth of knowledge often comes at the expense of breadth. Youth participating in these programs are being asked to specialize in an occupation before they have a full sense of what work means. We’re asking kids who can’t always remember to make their beds in the morning to make decisions that may have profound impacts on their immediate future.

While there are some youth who have found their career path, most are still searching, often without a clear sense of direction. Building on the strengths of career and technical education, I’d like to see educators expose more youth to a range of careers, using a contextualized curriculum and instruction grounded in experiential learning, some of it work-based. High school students need to have a better understanding of the range of jobs that exist in a field—and the skills needed to enter and advance—before they begin concentrating on their studies. Awarding certifications and postsecondary credit is a worthy practice so long as it doesn’t pigeonhole youth into a single job or major.

I ended my medical school aspirations because my medical experimentation and patient interactions helped me to understand that what I saw on television wasn’t real life. People suffered and some died. I discovered that medicine could be intellectually taxing and emotionally trying. My real-world experiences convinced me there were better career paths for me to follow.

Fortunately, I learned that being a doctor wasn’t for me before I went to medical school, but only after I invested four years of university studies in a field I no longer use. With better information, perhaps I would have found my calling earlier. And perhaps, if given the chance, Doug would have found his too. Like me, he went to college and pursued a degree (his in political science) without a full understanding of what it entailed and the career paths it offered.

While I fully support awarding industry certifications and postsecondary credit, simply expanding the number of youth earning these awards isn’t good educational policy. For those with clear career goals, we should offer such opportunities. But it may be misguided to promote work and postsecondary specialization for all students if it comes at the expense of a broader understanding of career options.

We need to help youth find their career passion before they spend years pursuing a degree or working a dead-end job. People learn by doing—and so we need to provide youth with structured career exposure and life experiences to help them make informed decisions. At least, that’s my diagnosis.