Reimagining Career Education: Preparing Students for the Workforce

Amidst an ever-changing workforce landscape, four ways to help support students.

GUEST COLUMN | by Todd Mahler


Preparing students for college, career, and adult life has been among the primary purposes and responsibilities of our nation’s schools. While the focus of schools has been to provide core academic knowledge and skills for foundational learning, historically, it is equally important to equip students for success in the workforce. The rapidly evolving job market is redefining what schools must do to prepare students for work — now and in the future. 

The pandemic, emerging technology, and an evolving global economy are just a few catalysts behind the ever-changing workforce landscape. Embracing these changes will invite broader and deeper conversations about the purpose of school, help educators understand what new skills are valued by employers, and, ultimately, help prepare students for lifelong success.  

‘The pandemic, emerging technology, and an evolving global economy are just a few catalysts behind the ever-changing workforce landscape.’

Below are four ways in which schools can reimagine career education to help support positive student outcomes:  

1. Adopt Career and Technical Education Programs  

Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs, which provide students with the technical and academic skills, as well as the knowledge and training necessary to succeed in future careers, can be an alternative to a bachelor’s degree. Many colleges offer CTE programs at the high school level, often at reduced or no cost. In fact, students who complete a CTE program are shown to have higher grades, increased student engagement, and a 7-10% increase in graduation rates.  

Technological advances such as artificial intelligence and advanced robotics are accelerating change and creating job prospects that require new technology skills as well as a focus on critical thinking, creativity, adaptability, and empathy. These new career opportunities often have a lower barrier to entry than jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree. 

As a result, an estimated 17.9 million workers in the United States will need to transition to new professions by 2030, and 14.9 million of these workers will need to consider entirely different occupational categories. Additionally, experts predict the United States will experience a deficit of 6.5 million skilled workers over the next decade.  

The demand for skilled workers will soon reach a tipping point, and students can get ahead of the curve by beginning their professional development with CTE programs in high school.    

2. Career-Connected Learning  

Career-connected learning is a framework that supports students through a pathway of career awareness, exploration, preparation, and training. These four stages intentionally engage students in: 1) learning about work, 2) learning for work, 3) learning through work, and 4) learning at work. The key tenets of career-connected learning include learner-relevant skills linked to professional and industry-based expectations. 

Vigo County School Corporation in Indiana launched the Vigo Virtual Success Academy, in partnership with Edmentum, to reimagine ways to help students succeed through a variety of career-connected learning opportunities. A key initiative of the school was to introduce students to a wide variety of career choices early in their education, so they could begin to see themselves in a pathway that aligned with their individual interests and passion.  

Starting in middle school, Vigo Virtual Success Academy students take career exploration courses as part of their Family and Consumer Science program. Curriculum within the program helps students understand a number of critical elements, including the variety of career opportunities at their disposal, what a technical school is, how apprenticeships or career certifications could impact their future, and how a two-year or four-year degree can shape their career path, as well. 

By developing strong partnerships with the local community, schools can create authentic career-connected learning opportunities and work experiences for students by empowering them to explore a variety of industries through job shadowing, apprenticeships, internships and guest speakers. 

3. Align Educational Curriculum With Workforce Skills 

While job-specific skills evolve alongside changes in innovation, durable skills are always in demand, and these skills offer a clear picture of what the labor market desires out of its workers. More specifically, durable skills are a combination of how you use what you know — skills such as critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity — as well as character skills, like resilience and leadership. All of these skills are highly sought after in the workplace. 

Cultivating these skills can begin as early as pre-school, and extend through high school and beyond, via a variety of online tools, software, and in-person curriculum focusing on personal growth. Regardless of an individual’s pathway, educational attainment level, or geography, durable skills will last a lifetime and can power entire careers. 

4. Engage all Stakeholders in Creating a Shared Vision  

Based on the distinct needs and background of a district’s community, stakeholders should be invited into conversations that define the purpose of school. School leaders should connect with community members so they can understand the needs of students and families in their respective communities. Some critical questions to ask might include: What job opportunities are available for our students? What skills do our students need? This will help districts develop programs that accurately reflect — and address — the needs of their community.  

We must commit to preparing all students for future success, whether their career path takes them through a four-year college, community college, technical school, or directly into the workforce. When we do, we will improve learning and life outcomes for all students. 

Todd Mahler is the Chief Product Officer at Edmentum. For more than 25 years, Todd has led the development of educational technology products for the nation’s leading publishers. Connect on LinkedIn.


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