George Lucas Educational Foundation
Career & Technical Education

How to Prepare Students for the Workplace Through Certifications

Creating courses around industry certifications can give students an advantage in the job search after graduation.

June 12, 2020
Roger Bamber / Alamy

For high school students who plan to enter the workforce after graduation, obtaining an industry certification prepares them to enter a high-paying, in-demand field such as manufacturing, finance, construction, or health care.

Certifications tell an employer that a candidate has demonstrated certain knowledge and skills by passing an aligned test. In 2019, at least 28 states took action to promote industry-recognized credentials in Career Technical Education (CTE) courses.

Certifications can be gained in almost every career field. Students interested in a food industry career can obtain certification that shows their knowledge of food safety and handling. Students pursuing computer science positions can obtain certifications in programming languages. Careful planning can help make all certification courses beneficial to students.

Creating Courses

Because decisions about course offerings and certification programs are often made at a district level, it is important for teachers to work with their district or state departments to create course offerings and course sequences that can lead to certification.

Examine current labor market data in the region to determine which programs might be most beneficial to students. Reviewing and assessing state data can be useful in deciding what programs might be most beneficial to students.

Connect with local employers to better understand the workforce needs of the area. Are there specific skills that employers desire in candidates? How do they evaluate applicants on those skills? Developing an understanding of employer motivations will help teachers tailor their instruction to real-world requirements.

Give time and attention to the possible sequencing of courses for a high school student’s schedule. For example, a student interested in graduating high school with a welding certification might begin with Intro to Welding in ninth grade and take a sequence of classes concluding with a workplace practicum in 12th grade. Many courses culminate with the certification test, so understanding the assessment can help create useful instruction for earlier coursework.

Research the logistics of certification programs, including registering students, processing payments, and ensuring that teachers have met any necessary requirements to proctor the tests. If the district does not have a CTE coordinator, state officials or industry groups can offer information and assistance. 

Promoting the Benefits

It is crucial to build student excitement at the beginning of the year about how certifications can help their future job prospects. As juniors and seniors begin developing their résumés or college applications, listing a credential directly related to their future career interests can improve their opportunities.

Invite former students as guest speakers to the class to explain how industry certifications advanced their goals. Before the visit, ask students to research the career field and develop a list of questions for the speaker. Alumni can offer insight on what they had to study to obtain their certifications and what obstacles they faced. They can also provide valuable information about the real-world experience of the job search process.

Local employers can help students directly connect their learning to real-life work and build interest around career paths and available certifications. Invite a local employer to talk about how they recruit candidates, review résumés, and conduct interviews. A restaurant owner might speak about how students can enter the industry, while a manufacturing manager might speak about the specific skills in demand at his plant.

Survey students ahead of time to see what fields interest them. Ask students to research job opportunities, wages, and qualifications for that field and summarize their findings. Preparation and research will make the experience more rewarding for both speaker and audience. To introduce writing and presentation skills, combine the guest speaker’s appearance with a lesson on résumé writing or interview skills. 

Incorporate Standards Into Classwork

Identify the standards and skills that are covered on the certification tests and then plan around those goals. One teacher in my school prepared her students for the Entrepreneurship and Small Business certification test this year by incorporating the topics into her regular coursework. She began by examining the practice certification tests.

One way to incorporate the skills assessed on the tests into the classroom is to focus on vocabulary. Create a list of relevant industry terms and introduce them in classwork or a word wall. Quick, frequent assessment, such as a weekly quiz, can help reinforce terms with students so that they have the language needed for the certification.

Introduce a standard at the beginning of a lesson. Especially for a hands-on course, it is important to draw connections between the work and the standards that will be tested. At points throughout a class, ask students to pause and return to the identified standard. Ask students to draw connections between their classwork and the standard. Frequent breaks to discuss the skills they are practicing will help reinforce concepts for students.

Practice exams can also be a useful guide for a course. After students take the exam, ask them to review their results in groups to identify areas where they need more study. In the same way that cramming the night before does not work on a school test, students should work on the skills all year leading up to the test. Teachers can help map out topics to be covered each month both in class and as homework and independent study.

In an era when the labor market demands highly skilled workers more than ever, obtaining an industry credential before leaving high school can set students apart and prepare them for the 21st-century workforce. 

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  • 9-12 High School

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