Career and Technical Education

Career Readiness: Starting Early With Young Learners

A key career readiness skill is to get kids talking, encouraging them to talk with each other, reach out to others not in the classroom, and to engage in deeper conversations.
Two girls across from each other at a table looking through microscopes
Photo credit: Kevin Jarrett via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

We hear a lot of talk about career readiness these days, and for secondary educators, you can't spit without finding advice on how to make our units, our school structure, or our content more aligned with prepping our students for the jobs of today and the future. So how about kindergarten kids?

Don't laugh. I'm not writing today to advocate that we get our early learners to decide now on a career in dentistry or accounting. I'm here today to write about the skills that successful people have in any career -- skills that should be encouraged early on.

So I reached out to a friend of mine that has some authority in career readiness to talk about ways to scaffold the skills our students need to know.

Words from an Expert

Jonie Watanabe Tsuji is a National Certified Counselor (NCC) with a master's degree in college counseling student services and a graduate certificate in career counseling. She worked at Caltech for 10 years and is now a career counselor at Harvey Mudd College and a career counselor/consultant for graduate and post-doctorate students at Cedars Sinai Medical Center.

It turns out that she too had been thinking about this subject and had begun honing in on what different grade levels could be doing to get our students career ready. She shares her thoughts in today's post.

Tsuji defines career readiness in a very simple way: It's about being able to have conversations, well-spoken ones, on jobs and your place in a world filled with them. She explained, "To me, career readiness is a student who has a good sense of him/herself and is willing to listen and have a conversation about the world of work."

So let's back-plan a student's experience with this career conversation by starting at the top of the education ladder.

Career Advice for the Ages

To start, when Tsuji begins to counsel adults about career (postgraduates, PhD students, and beyond), she asks simple questions and assigns them categories with which to understand her client better:

  • "What do you like to do in your free time?" (Interests.)
  • "If you could do a job, without putting a name on the actual job, what type of things would you like to do?" (Skills.)
  • "What is important to you in a job?" People might say, "a job where I help people," or "a job where I only work eight-to-five, no overtime and no weekends," or "a non-profit for the greater good." (Values.)
  • Most importantly, Tsuji asks the people she works with to reflect: "When you were a little kid, and people asked you, "What do you want to be when you grow up, what was your response? When you were a little older, maybe middle-school age, what did you say? And finally, when you were in high school, what did you say?"

"Typically there's a pattern you see emerge," she explained. Maybe the little kid wanted to be a cowboy while the middle school student wished to be a police officer. The high school version of the same student might want to become a CSI investigator or member of the FBI. The wishes, you see, are related.

Tips for Preparing Students  

So given the power of this kind of reflection, Tsuji breaks it down into four ways to incorporate career readiness at any academic level:

1) Teach students conversational skills. Students need to feel comfortable "in their own skin" and know about themselves. They should be able to hold a conversation with anyone (not just their friends and peers, but also adults). She found that the most successful college students -- the excellent networkers -- were those who were taught at a young age to talk to adults (friends of parents, for example).

2) Incorporate the world of work into the lessons. Find examples of how history relates to current professions. Find model texts that are career-related. For example, demonstrate how people can use math in everyday life -- and what mathematicians do in finance or insurance, as engineers or in computer science.

3) Ask students about their career goals at each level. Much like her series of questions above, perhaps students can keep a K-12 career portfolio or log, something that poses questions about goals at each stage of the game. It's a way to help students reflect back to see if there are patterns emerging.

4) Encourage students to keep in touch with their friends from school. Networking is the number one way that people get jobs. If students don't do this (or feel uncomfortable doing this), they will have difficulty finding out about job opportunities, interviewing for jobs, etc.

Kindergarten teachers need to give kids opportunities to interact verbally. They need to discuss topics with each other, with classroom volunteers, heck, even with the classroom pet. In other words, it's never too early to get started preparing our students for the career world.

Fourth grade teachers need to have kids work in more group projects. Tsuji adds, "When on field trips, have them ask whoever is leading the group: What do they like about their job? What do they do other than lead field trips?"

Seventh grade teachers should be encouraging more independent and unsupervised discussion both on campus and off campus. She explained how teachers need to assign projects that get kids out of the classroom so they can talk to people who do jobs outside of their small circle of experience. Also, bring experts into the classroom that students can interview in a more targeted way.

The Most Important Skill in All Grades

The most important standard to focus on for career readiness, says Tsuji, is listening and speaking. To meet this standard, a teacher at any grade level can do the following:

  • Have students sign up and choose a job they are interested in and do some research about it.
  • Encourage students to conduct an informal interview with each other to learn about the different jobs.
  • Assign students to interview an adult (a non-parent) about his or her job.

Sure, kids will learn about professions this way, but it's really about giving students a structure to discuss and carry on conversations -- that is the key skill. Examples of this are: talking on topic (efficiently and authentically), listening deeply, responding to others, asking questions, and posing follow-up comments or questions.

The important thing to come away with here is that a silent classroom is not teaching career readiness. In fact, it's stifling it. So get the kids talking, encourage them to keep in touch -- and teach career readiness by permitting deep conversations.