The Great Education Equalizer: Hands-On, Digital Career Experiences

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” is a question that dogged many of us when we were kids. Sometimes it was asked in elementary school, when it was preposterous for any child to have a concrete idea of what they wanted to be. Some kids said they wanted to do what their parents did or that they wanted to be a teacher, because those were their working role models. Even those with a passion for something specific – for drawing, reading fashion magazines, music or repairing things – didn’t realize that those talents could turn into careers.

Research shows that two out of three high school students and recent high school graduates say they would have benefited from more career exploration in middle and/or high school. Additional research shows that most high school graduates (75%) do not feel prepared to make college or career decisions after graduation.

While college can be a smart choice with numerous benefits, it has become a default option for too many. Longstanding stigmas taint great non-degree pathways to success, such as career and technical education (CTE) and apprenticeships. However, based on a recent study, less than half of respondents who identified as members of Generation Z – born between the late 1990s and early 2010s – said they had enough information to decide what post-high school pathway was best for them.

Instead of simply asking a young person what they want to be when they grow up, the questions I would pose to a young person today are: What do you love to do? And what are you passionate about? From there, the goal for all educators should be giving students in middle and high school the tools they need to imagine, explore and plan a rewarding career path.

How do we get there? COVID brought many problems in our education system to the forefront and none more so than the “digital divide.” When homes became homerooms, young people who didn’t have access to affordable, high-speed internet access fell to the back of the class. And yet, there was one place where kids could communicate freely, whether doing schoolwork, connecting with friends during lockdown, or exploring their interests and passions: their cell phones.

Data suggests that more than 95% of teens have or can access a cell phone, so why not meet them there? Sure, they’re on TikTok or Instagram and texting friends, but they’re also engaged in productive activities that can absorb them for hours. Start by noticing and asking what fires their imagination. Unearth the social causes they’re exploring online by asking them about their interests in this area. Encourage exploration instead of shutting down their self-discovery just because it’s happening online.

A Digital Journey for Career Exposure, Experience and Life Skills

Middle school is the optimal time to begin exposing kids to careers, many of which they never knew existed. According to the Association for Middle Level Education, students are less stressed in middle school and can take more risks with fewer immediate consequences.

One way that my organization, American Student Assistance, is bringing career discovery to teens – on their phones – is through Futurescape, a digital experience that enables youth to explore real careers through a self-discovery journey that connects who they are and what they love with potential careers. Beyond exploring careers using digital experiences, opportunities include job shadows, worksite visits, career fairs and “meet a professional” experiences. These opportunities allow young people to uncover the wide variety of career possibilities in front of them and start to think about what might align with their interests. Such paths include biomedical engineering, multimedia art and animation, clinical and counseling psychiatry, and hundreds more.

Students absolutely need opportunities to “test and try” in high school, as opposed to waiting until after they graduate. Research shows just 2% of students had completed an internship during high school, yet resources abound to find and secure one. Students can visit Chegg to explore more than 10,000 internships listed by city. The Pathways Internship Program offers a wide variety of paid opportunities to work in federal agencies and applications are open on a rolling basis. Teens can also search for internships based on specific interests – just one example are those offered by the National Park Service. We also encourage young people to seek out opportunities in their local communities.

Today’s youth need career exposure and experience, but that’s not enough. They also need opportunities and experiences to develop life skills and gain access to career development resources. That’s why we co-created EvolveMe, a game-like mobile experience that incentivizes teens to explore, experiment and complete tasks – including mentorships, mock job interview coaching and coding. Based on feedback from more than 4,000 students, the digital tool advances career interest and exploration as kids earn points and redeem gift cards for their favorite retail, restaurant and entertainment brands. It makes developing skills related to career exploration and life after high school fun – and effective.

Our direct-to-kid strategy has already reached 12 million young people, and we’re aiming to increase that number to 15 million by the end of the year. Still, that’s only half of the 30 million students ages 13-18 who are stepping into their futures. How do we reach the rest?

We are already integrating our free digital platforms with career-focused experiences and opportunities offered by other nonprofits, as well as for-profits that offer no-pay learning options, but we must go further. Let’s forge partnerships with more like-minded organizations, such as ASA grantees Big Picture Learning, whose innovative schools put students at the center of their learning through internships, and NAF, which brings together education, business and community leaders to transform the high school experience. More of these types of organizations along with employers must continue to provide exposure, experiences and work-based skills training.

Let’s foster widespread awareness and acceptance of multiple, viable pathways to success, such as CTE, apprenticeships and entrepreneurial opportunities, and give young people who pursue these paths the respect and support they deserve. Let’s advance a legislative agenda that drives in-school career readiness learning and increases access to diverse postsecondary paths to success. Most of all, let’s reshape the national conversation about what student success looks like.

The next time you’re tempted to ask a young person what they want to be when they grow up, ask them instead what makes their heart sing.

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