Today’s students view the future much differently than prior generations. A combination of factors, from the pandemic to the rapidly changing digital world, highly competitive job market, and growing trend of self-start businesses, has made the need or desire to work a higher priority than a college degree for many high school students.
With that in mind, the presence of career-readiness programs in high schools is more important than ever. The exposure to, exploration of, and experiences within various job fields is like the “invisible curriculum” of school – lessons beyond the traditional tested subjects that prepare students for the real world, whether they’re bound for college, trade school, the military, or eyeing a career after graduation.
Students who are exposed to work experiences early are generally more attractive to potential employers. In addition, research shows that teens who are employed also tend to earn better grades and are more well-rounded in terms of self-confidence and social skills, as well as important life skills, like money management, problem-solving, and decision-making. This is why the College & Career Readiness (CCR) Program is such a critical component of the Communities In Schools of Memphis (CISM) model and a key lever in fulfilling our mission of keeping students in school and helping them achieve in life.
Like anything in life, moderation is key. Students have to be able to balance school, extracurricular activities, and family life with work opportunities. Too much work – more than 15-20 hours per week – at an early age could lead to increased stress, poor grades from the inability to prioritize school work, and decreased family time. However, the “invisible curriculum” is not only intended to open students’ eyes to new possibilities, but also to help them understand the importance of balance so work does not lead to negative outcomes.
For a school or organization interested in creating or strengthening a career-readiness program, there are three key staples that can bring this to life: work exposure, work exploration, and work experience.
These activities are ideal for students in middle school and perhaps very early in high school (age 10-14). Information and concepts about a relatively unknown world of work can be enough to spark an interest and excitement to dream bigger. Career days and similar in-school learning activities that allow students to learn about a wide array of career fields and interact with professionals can make a strong impression at this young age.
The exploration stage is much more interactive and best suited for students entering and progressing through high school (age 13-16). Students at this age are naturally more curious to examine and investigate the world of work and equipped to engage in assessments that can provide insight into their strengths, weaknesses, talents, and potential career interests. Activities may include job shadowing or peer-to-peer interactions with employers to get a deeper understanding of career fields and roles.
Students in their junior and senior years (16-18) are typically more capable of managing competing priorities – plus, they’re interested in earning money – so real work experiences are much more reasonable and in demand. Employment opportunities of any type at this age help students understand how to complete tasks while being supervised and adapting to new norms and regulations, which contribute to a strong sense of independence and personal accountability.
I was personally fortunate enough to have these opportunities as a high school student, and I believe they truly set me apart from many of my peers and gave me an advantage in my pursuit of a career – not to mention, they were some of my favorite experiences as a youth.
I took aptitude tests to identify my strengths and interests and participated in the Memphis REACH program (then called Memphis Prep), which allowed me to take part in summer study programs across the country, explore new subjects, and meet diverse people. These activities fed my desire to learn and seek more! My exposure and exploration continued with several internships after college that opened my eyes to jobs in the nonprofit sector and gave me the real-world experience I needed to put my education to work.
CISM is working to ensure the students we serve do not have to make a choice between school and work, but that they gain the exposure and experience to be successful no matter what path they choose – and the necessary sense of balance.
Our College & Career Readiness Program provides students with hands-on support with college entrance exams, FAFSA, internships, tutoring, and even money for books and supplies. Paid work experience is of course a feature component as well, thanks to our partnership with Workforce Mid-South. We’re able to offer a variety of job opportunities that pay $15/hour, along with holistic supports, such as transportation, rental assistance, tutoring, and monetary incentives, to encourage students to keep striving for greatness.
The snapshot below shows our impact in the 2021-22 school year.
Though exposure, exploration, and experience do not end in high school, students who are fortunate enough to receive the “invisible curriculum” before graduation certainly have an advantage in navigating today’s highly competitive and diverse workforce. Recognizing that there is a world of possibilities beyond their own city or state and knowing there’s a reasonable and attainable path to get there can unlock limitless potential.