Beyond the Aptitude Test

High Schools Take a New Approach to Career Exploration

For decades, career exploration just meant a Scan-tron test, maybe a meeting with a guidance counselor, and reading a booklet about jobs that match interests and aptitudes determined by said test. As technology becomes more ingrained in our lives, the world of work is changing rapidly, and so is the work of finding our place in the economy. In response, a few area schools are taking an innovative approach to career exploration for their students.

Identifying What Jobs Even Exist

Kim Safran, principal of PPS Brashear High School, worries a lot about making sure her students have the right skills for the world outside her school. She says, “Every person is going to have to learn how to use technology and be able to manipulate it in some way. Even at the grocery store.” Her school has an 88% poverty rate, which means most of her students can’t just go home and google “cool jobs using YouTube” because they don’t necessarily have access to the Internet. She has to reshape their school day to make space for computer science and STEAM courses while also opening her students’ eyes to the types of jobs that exist in the fields they’re interested in.

One solution for Brashear has been to purchase a subscription to Naviance, a software program that helps students explore interests and identify their strengths, then research careers that might map nicely with those. She also has a partnership with Big Brothers, Big Sisters, that brings adult mentors into the lives of her students to share their perspectives and teach them just what sorts of jobs exist in various fields—for instance, a Nike employee opened students’ eyes to what moves a sneaker from concept to store shelves. But how can Safran’s students build the skills necessary to pursue those careers once they’ve identified a goal?

Tap Into Local Resources

Career Exploration at Avonworth High School / Photo via Avonworth School District

One benefit to growing up in an urban area like Pittsburgh brings the opportunity for students to visit local businesses. “You never know what a job really looks like until you experience it,” says Safran. “It’s really impactful for [our students] to actually see people doing their jobs.”

But it’s not just the students benefiting from these experiences. Carnegie Mellon University, for instance, is committed to increasing diversity, particularly within their computer science programs. Safran says, “I feel like companies realize the value of diversity now” so a school like Brashear with a diverse student population of children from over 30 nations makes a strong partner. The same holds true for companies looking for their future work force, like Chrysler, who has offered Brashear’s CTE students jobs on the spot during tours of the school.

Avonworth High School, just north of the city of Pittsburgh, is also taking advantage of our region’s employers to help their students explore career pathways. Superintendent Tom Ralston says their Career Academies, called Personal Pathways, provide students with suggested preparatory courses as well as experiential opportunities with local business partners. “Some of our students’ visits have grown into job shadowing or even internships,” Ralston says. “As we move forward, we hope to revamp our master schedule to allow room for more meaningful explorations.” The district’s vision is to create a 30-hour internship for each student to go into the workplace.

Bringing Youth to the Workplace

Students practice career-relevant skills at NCCP / Photo via NCCP

Students practice career-relevant skills at NCCP / Photo via NCCP

One private school, Nazareth College and Career Prep (formerly known as Holy Family Academy), has actually based its entire school on the idea of career exploration. Head of School Lisa M. Abel-Palmieri, Ph.D., was galvanized by the findings of the Allegheny Conference Report, which indicated that our region has a shortage of tech employees and a major diversity problem. Abel-Palmieri said there were no equitable private school options for families who can’t afford tuition, and she also believes “any student can be prepared for the STEM jobs our region needs, regardless of socioeconomic status.”

The solution? Nazareth College and Career Prep placed career exploration at the center of their entire school experience. Freshmen begin work with soft skills, such as mock interviews, resume development, and public speaking. At this age, students shadow employees in jobs that interest them. NCCP has partnered with over 30 local nonprofits, who are often in need of assistance with administrative tasks. Abel-Palmieri meets this need with her sophomore students, who learn everything from office culture to how to ask their mentors for clarification.

By junior and senior year, NCCP students have built skills and industry credentials qualifying them for substantial internship opportunities. “We’ve got students on the clinical floors at Allegheny General Hospital and working with Level I IT help desks,” says Abel-Palmieri. “Most young people don’t get these opportunities until their junior year of college.”

Rethinking the Guidance Counselor

So how can a large, urban high school like Brashear–or even a smaller suburban one like Avonworth–hope to match that level of personalized career exploration for each student? Abel-Palmieri thinks one thing that would help other schools scale their career exploration is to rethink the role of their guidance counselors.

Nazareth College and Career Prep has split the role of guidance counselor into 3 prongs. One person works with students on ACT and SAT preparation and college applications. Another is a family partnership coordinator, whose job entails everything from custody issues to counseling. The third guidance counselor is tasked with managing student success, which includes student life, developing seminars for career exploration skills, and a student advisory program.

Ralston has taken this approach with staffing, too. “We used to just split the alphabet with our traditional guidance counselor model,” he says, but now their roles are divided by college and career exploration and then another person who works as the social/emotional/academic counselor for the students.

Learn to Work by Working

As Susie Puskar of Partner4Work said in our recent interview, “youth learn to work by working. Having those ‘first jobs’ is critically important in making sure people learn the skills necessary to succeed in the workplace.” As local schools aim to prepare their students for life beyond high school, we see an increasing emphasis on meaningful career exploration throughout students’ school careers. Thanks to a strong network of businesses (and Remake Learning partners!), youth in our region are getting a good look at the opportunities beyond their campus.

Published April 05, 2018

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