Why Career Readiness Should Start in Middle School

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Exposure to different careers gives kids more options to consider and a fresh perspective on areas of work they may have never considered. (Photo: photo-denver/Shutterstock)

By Mary Jo DiLonardo

When kids are young, they’re often asked what they want to be when they grow up. Yet the majority don’t start seriously considering career path options until high school — and that may not be early enough. Students benefit when career readiness and planning start in middle school.

What is career readiness?

Career readiness encompasses everything that helps students of any age prepare to enter the job market successfully. It includes exploring careers to see what may be the best fit in terms of skills and interests plus learning what training and experience they’ll need to pursue a career. 

Career readiness encompasses three distinct areas, reports the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE):

  1. Core academic skills: Strong math and communication abilities, from reading manuals to taking measurements, are important in every career.
  2. Employability skills: These are the key skills, such as critical thinking and problem solving, that are used on the job.
  3. Job-specific skills: What training and certification are needed for a career? This is in addition to specific, on-the-job training required for most professions. 

High school is too late to start thinking about a career

“Middle school, not high school, is the place where kids need to start thinking about and preparing for adult life in tangible ways,” says Jean Eddy, president and CEO of American Student Assistance, an organization focused on helping kids start thinking about career readiness as early as middle school.

Middle school students are already concerned about career choices. According to a study by American Student Assistance, half of middle schoolers say they are worried about choosing the right career. And 87% are interested in ways to match their interests and skills with possible careers.

The group suggests work-based learning — like job shadowing or an internship — to help young students get a handle on their interests and abilities. These on-site experiences let them meet professionals in the field while learning what they might like to do as a career.

“Students are less stressed out in the middle grades,” Stephanie Simpson, CEO of the Association for Middle Level Education, a nonprofit that supports middle school educators, tells The Hechinger Report. “They can explore and take some risks, with fewer immediate consequences.”

The changing career landscape

Due to massive leaps in technological advancement and automation, some jobs may disappear over the next few years while new ones will be created. For most jobs, the emphasis on specific skills will change.

A study by the Foundation for Young Australians looked at the impacts of automation, artificial intelligence and other changes in the workplace. For example, in health professions, the 2017 research found that while the need for organizational skills would be reduced by five hours a week, the need for critical thinking and problem-solving would increase exponentially.

Earlier career planning can help young people navigate these trends while understanding which career readiness skills can give them an edge when they’re ready to hit the job market.

Real-life career readiness program examples

The Gwinnett County Public School system in metro Atlanta has a strong career development program that includes career and technical education (CTE). Students begin learning about careers in elementary school. They can explore CTE programs starting in sixth grade. They can choose from more than 60 career pathways ranging from computer science to carpentry.

“CTE prepares students for postsecondary education and training for in-demand, high-skill, and high-wage careers,” explains the system website. “Career clusters allow students to choose a career area of interest in high school. Students are enrolled in classes tailored to the career cluster, which helps them navigate their way to greater lifetime success.” 

In the Dallas Independent School District in Texas, administrators recently expanded career exploration to sixth graders. Courses had been offered for some time to seventh and eighth graders, but leaders felt even younger kids could benefit.

Brian Lusk, the district’s chief of strategic initiatives, told The Hechinger Report that they wanted to make sure all students were able to make informed decisions about career paths. “Equity is important to us,” he said.

Helpful career readiness tools

Young students examine a model of a human to learn about internal organs
Real-world experiences and tools help kids discover what they’re good at. (Credit: Inside Creative House/Shutterstock)

Even if your local middle school doesn’t yet have career readiness programs, there are plenty of online tools that can help students explore career readiness and interests.

A good way to start is by taking SkillPointe’s career interest quiz to see what might be a good fit. You’ll select “me” if the photo suggests something you like or are good at, or click “not me” if it doesn’t. At the end, you’ll be given a list of potential career areas, as well as information on the number of jobs available and median salaries.

For school administrators, Pathful Explore is targeted towards students in grades 6 through 12. It uses assessments, interactive tools and real-world experiences to help students discover careers and create a path to a career or college.

My Next Move lets you search careers by industry or by keywords describing your dream job. Then click on the O*NET Interest Profiler and take a quiz about the things you like to do. You’ll find out how those interests connect to possible job paths.

There are many other tools available to help younger students see what’s possible in the world of work. The sooner they discover what they like to do and what they’re good at, the more options they’ll have. 

Mary Jo DiLonardo is an Atlanta-based writer who has worked in print, online and broadcast journalism for more than 30 years. She has covered education, health, lifestyle issues and nature for many outlets including WebMD, CNN and Treehugger. 

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