How to ensure a brighter future: Prepare and empower our youth now

High school, not college, is the time for hands-on experience through work-based learning opportunities like internships.
Jean Eddy
Jean Eddy
Jean Eddy is president and CEO of American Student Assistance.

Today’s world is marked by unprecedented uncertainty. To compound matters, COVID and its variants have forced us to rethink how we socialize, work, celebrate holidays, and travel. While seven in 10 adults are stressed, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 80% of U.S. students are (sometimes or often) feeling anxious and more than one in three are depressed. Youth have suffered from social isolation and, more than ever, are feeling the effects of mental illness.

While inequities in education existed prior to the pandemic, they’re more visible and pronounced now. In recent years, students have endured interrupted schooling, teacher and administrator resignations, and high-speed internet connectivity issues. These disruptions have thwarted learning and exacerbated stress. Learners are behind and feeling the pressure.

Most kids are barely able to think about the present, let alone what’s ahead. An estimated 10 million young people between the ages of 16 and 24 are lost—without a job or not in school. Every minute we are not focused on helping Gen Z find their way to a rewarding and productive work life, we fuel the issue and endanger their lives—and the future of our nation.

Of all the challenges our society faces right now, helping young people make informed, confident decisions about their futures must be our first imperative—and we know it can be done.

Exploration and experienced-based learning

Today’s teens are ill-equipped and too stressed to make sound decisions about life after high school and there’s a reason why. Research shows that approximately two out of three high school students and recent high school graduates feel they would have benefited from more career exploration in middle or high school. Many kids today simply do not have the information they need to make smart decisions about what to do upon high school graduation.

According to research, most high school graduates (75%) do not feel prepared to make college or career decisions after graduation. Educators agree; ASA research shows only a quarter of all teachers believe that their school is doing a good job preparing students for job opportunities.

Students may be bewildered about what to do after high school, but educators, parents, legislators, employers, and society should not be. We’re getting smarter about when and how to reach young people with information about post-high school pathways. We know the importance of enabling them to explore different career paths and learn about their options beginning in middle school. And we understand how critical it is to give them access to hands-on work experiences while they are in high school so they can gain skills and test and try different jobs.

Starting career exploration in middle school

If we wait until senior year in high school to talk about a student’s future (when they can least focus on it), we’re years too late. Research shows that career and self-exploration should begin as early as middle school when kids are less stressed and more curious about their future.

Once kids have explored career possibilities, high school, not college, is the time for hands-on experience through work-based learning opportunities like internships. They open students’ eyes to what’s possible and teach them skills while introducing them to real-world employer expectations, like showing up on time, asking thoughtful questions, and being prepared for work.

The best way to start changing this paradigm is by listening hard to what Gen Z has to say. We can’t help them by telling them what to do; we can only expose them to a wide range of options and see where they gravitate, what excites them, where they have questions, and where they’re engaged. If we begin by noticing and learning what they love to do and then point them in the direction of related career exploration resources, they’ll be well on their way to identifying viable, rewarding careers that suit their temperaments and talents.

Embracing multiple pathways to success after high school

We know that experienced, caring mentors can become career champions who help students explore with confidence. But none of this will happen until we change the collective mindset about postsecondary pathways that do not include college degrees. While college is the default for millions of high school seniors, our biases block many students from exploring  viable, diverse educational, technical training, and career paths.

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Imagine a world where students wouldn’t feel obligated to go to college because of pressure from parents, caregivers, and prospective employers. Where equitable access to an abundance of internships, micro-credentials, certificate programs, and apprenticeships enables students to tap into their passions and discover what careers and vocations might align with their interests and talents.

What if we got rid of the stigma associated with community college so students had more time to figure out what they really want to do (at a fraction of the cost of a four-year college)? What if we eliminated the negativity surrounding trade school, where students can develop skills that lead to lucrative trades they embrace with pride and passion? What if we gave all kids equal access to virtual internships so they could test and try careers before making decisions of great consequence? What if we gave every middle and high school student free unlimited access to a world of career exploration tools—on their mobile devices?

We are working to shift norms and foster these options, with an emphasis on student-directed, digital learning outside of the classroom. While we have a laser focus on this mission, we need many other influential organizations and individuals to join us in a shared sense of urgency.

Growing the digital ecosystem

No student should ever be made to feel unprepared and anxious about their future because they never had the opportunity to explore and experiment with a whole host of potential career and postsecondary options prior to making the all-important decision about what to do with their life after high school. While some of this career exploration can happen in the classroom, the most effective way to ensure these resources are available to young people on demand is by connecting with them directly via their mobile devices, tablets, and laptops.

If we expect these digital experiences to change students’ lives, we must set the bar high. Self-directed digital resources must be designed to reflect students’ interests, preferences, and passions. Moreover, if these online experiences ultimately are going to be successful in connecting kids with content, they must be designed to meet teens’ high expectations around user experience and design. They should enable young people to explore and imagine, on their own terms and in safe spaces. They should engage and foster continuous interaction while surfacing the most relevant information.

A new approach to an age-old problem

While much of the data suggests youth are fearful and uneasy, there is also optimism and hope. A majority of students still express an eagerness to explore who they want to be and find their place in the world. One study we conducted shows 87% of middle schoolers were interested in ways to match their specific skills and passions with potential careers. Let’s act on that.

We don’t have all the answers, but we have some of them—and we can work together to develop more.

We can forge partnerships among like-minded organizations creative enough and brave enough to come up with new ways that give students the inspiration and resources needed to start out on the right path. We can advance a legislative agenda that enables career learning in the classroom, access to internships, mentoring programs, and skills training. We can use technology, including social media, for the greater good—as tools that can be used to explore career options, cause advocacy, and life skills.

Using this technology, particularly on smartphones, we can help young people explore their interests and take action through career exploration beyond the classroom. We must work hard to remove the stigma that clouds decisions to consider non-degree pathways following high school.

If we want a productive society, if we want an empowered workforce that’s not on the brink of resigning, if we want to watch young people stretch and grow into passionate workers in whatever field they choose, we must pull together now to help them explore and plan for—not dread or avoid—their futures. With these efforts and more, we know we can help every student bring their future into focus.

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