Is 8th Grade Too Early to Pick a Career?

Inside South Carolina’s experiment to bring career counseling into the classroom from kindergarten through senior year.

National Journal
Nancy Cook
May 14, 2014, 1 a.m.

If you want middle and high school stu­dents to give great­er thought to their ca­reer paths, one key step is to hire and train good guid­ance coun­selors.

So goes one of the primary les­sons from South Car­o­lina’s nearly nine-year ex­per­i­ment to bring ca­reer coun­sel­ing in­to its pub­lic school classrooms as a way to bet­ter con­nect gradu­at­ing stu­dents to the ever-chan­ging de­mands of the labor mar­ket. “We want stu­dents to be­come more aware of their ca­reer choices and un­der­stand the ideas in terms of salar­ies and the job mar­ket out­look,” says Dr. Sab­rina Moore of the South Car­o­lina Edu­ca­tion De­part­ment.

Help­ing stu­dents sort through ca­reer paths is now the primary role for Pa­tri­cia Re­id, who has spent 21 years as a teach­er, an at-risk guid­ance coun­selor, and now a school ca­reer spe­cial­ist. Re­id works at a middle school in Clover, S.C., where she ad­vises roughly 300 eighth-graders each year on their ca­reer goals through the state’s Per­son­al Path­ways to Suc­cess pro­gram.

Re­id be­gins by meet­ing and talk­ing with each stu­dent about her in­terests, hob­bies, and aca­dem­ic pref­er­ences. To­geth­er, the two identi­fy a ca­reer path that the stu­dent can fo­cus on dur­ing high school — per­haps tech­no­logy, en­gin­eer­ing, veter­in­ary sci­ence, or man­u­fac­tur­ing. Then Re­id meets with the stu­dent and par­ents to de­vel­op an in­di­vidu­al gradu­ation plan, which al­lows stu­dents to take elect­ives throughout high school to bol­ster par­tic­u­lar in­terests. So, if a stu­dent ex­presses in­terest in be­com­ing, say, a veter­in­ari­an, he could sign up for an ag­ri­cul­tur­al sci­ence or an­im­al-care classes in high school in ad­di­tion to en­rolling in re­quired courses such as Eng­lish, math, sci­ence, and his­tory.

The goal is to ex­pose stu­dents to their chosen pro­fes­sion­al field as early as pos­sible, as well as to give them time for in­tern­ships or job-shad­ow­ing. Stu­dents al­ways can — and do — change their minds and shift fo­cus if they like. “It’s nev­er too soon to think about ca­reers be­cause of the com­pet­it­ive­ness in the work­place now,” Re­id says. “The world of work is totally evolving. A big part of what the pro­gram does is to give you a vari­ety of op­por­tun­it­ies to dis­cov­er and ex­plore.”

Ask­ing pub­lic school stu­dents to think through their ca­reer op­tions more closely is not just a whim in today’s tough eco­nomy. Edu­cat­ors and poli­cy­makers, such as those in South Car­o­lina, view it as an im­per­at­ive to in­sure the coun­try’s fu­ture com­pet­it­ive­ness. The na­tion­al un­em­ploy­ment rate fell in April from 6.7 per­cent to 6.3 per­cent in the most re­cent re­lease of labor data, but the un­em­ploy­ment rate among teen­agers re­mains in the double di­gits at 19.1 per­cent. And, if teens and twentyso­methings fail to gain a toe­hold in the labor mar­ket dur­ing high school and bey­ond, it can set them back in terms of their fin­ances and their ca­reer pro­gres­sion for years — enough for some eco­nom­ists to con­sider this par­tic­u­lar mo­ment a crisis for teen un­em­ploy­ment. 

South Car­o­lina first hit on the idea of de­vel­op­ing a ro­bust ca­reer-coun­sel­ing pro­gram for its pub­lic school sys­tem in the late 1990s. By then, the state’s long­time tex­tile in­dustry had moved thou­sands of its blue-col­lar fact­ory jobs over­seas. In its place, South Car­o­lina hoped to at­tract com­pan­ies that could em­ploy work­ers in ad­vanced man­u­fac­tur­ing and sup­ply fields. (BMW, as one ex­ample, opened up a plant in Greer in 1994). “What was hap­pen­ing was that we could not find em­ploy­ees for the jobs that were be­ing cre­ated,” says Robert Barnett, as­so­ci­ate vice pres­id­ent for work­force, edu­ca­tion, and man­u­fac­tur­ing policy with the South Car­o­lina Cham­ber of Com­merce. “The kids who had come out of school were not match­ing up with the jobs either. I’m not say­ing we were in a crisis mode, but we were get­ting close to it.”

To tackle this mis­match, loc­al busi­ness lead­ers, edu­ca­tion ad­voc­ates, and a few vo­cal school su­per­in­tend­ents set to work in 1999 on le­gis­la­tion to im­prove the state’s work­force de­vel­op­ment and to more closely tie its edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem to the job mar­ket. By 2005, South Car­o­lina passed the Edu­ca­tion and Eco­nom­ic De­vel­op­ment Act, which re­quired every pub­lic school, grades K-12, to in­ject more ca­reer coun­sel­ing in­to the cur­riculum. In ele­ment­ary and middle school, this primar­ily takes the form of ba­sic ca­reer ex­plor­a­tion. By eighth grade, stu­dents meet one-on-one with coun­selors, like Re­id, to de­vel­op an in­di­vidu­al gradu­ation plan for high school. Stu­dents spe­cial­ize in a ca­reer cluster and take a hand­ful of elect­ives by the end of their seni­or years that re­late to their ca­reer plan.

The pro­gram now serves about 250,000 pub­lic school stu­dents at an av­er­age cost to the state of $28 mil­lion a year, Moore says. The ma­jor­ity of that budget (about $21 mil­lion) goes to train and hire the ca­reer spe­cial­ists and guid­ance coun­selors. A five-year study of South Car­o­lina’s pro­gram called the coun­selors one of the most in­teg­ral parts to its suc­cess. “School coun­sel­ing used to be fo­cused on col­lege, col­lege, col­lege,” says Nat­alie Stipan­ovic, an as­sist­ant pro­fess­or at the Uni­versity of Louis­ville, who has ex­tens­ively stud­ied the coun­sel­ing por­tion of the South Car­o­lina pro­gram. “With all of the kids who don’t go to col­lege, what do we do? This pro­gram makes sure that every stu­dent is seen as im­port­ant to talk to.”

Stu­dents dur­ing the 2010-11 school year seem to agree they had be­nefited from the ex­tra at­ten­tion. A ma­jor­ity of sopho­mores and seni­ors sur­veyed from that year told re­search­ers on the lon­git­ud­in­al study that they’d already re­searched jobs, en­rolled in classes rel­ev­ant to their ca­reer plans, and par­ti­cip­ated in ex­tra­cur­ricular activ­it­ies or work out­side of school that some­how con­nec­ted to po­ten­tial jobs.

For edu­ca­tion­al ex­perts, the South Car­o­lina pro­gram of­fers a po­ten­tial mod­el for oth­er states and cit­ies as they con­tem­plate ways to make high school gradu­ates more com­pet­it­ive and to en­sure they can ob­tain a middle-class life­style. Right now, ca­reer dis­cus­sions tend to fo­cus on col­lege or bust, says An­thony P. Carne­vale, dir­ect­or and re­search pro­fess­or of the Geor­getown Uni­versity Cen­ter on Edu­ca­tion and the Work­force. It’s as if no middle ground ex­ists between a stu­dent at­tend­ing Har­vard or work­ing at Mc­Don­ald’s. “If you want up­ward mo­bil­ity in Amer­ica for low-in­come kids, you have to get them to think about how they will use their edu­ca­tion to make a liv­ing,” Carne­vale says. “Right now, we act like there’s only one path­way.”

The biggest chal­lenge fa­cing the South Car­o­lina pro­gram pre­dict­ably comes in the form of money and re­sources. The state slashed its edu­ca­tion fund­ing at the height of the re­ces­sion, a move that showed the fin­an­cial vul­ner­ab­il­ity of these types of pro­grams. The ra­tio of stu­dents to guid­ance and ca­reer coun­selors re­mains an­oth­er is­sue; Re­id says she still sees any­where from 300 to 475 stu­dents a year. Ideally, the pro­gram wants to en­cour­age a ra­tio of one coun­selor to 350 stu­dents — still a high num­ber for all of its em­phas­is on in­di­vidu­al at­ten­tion.

And what about the naysay­ers who ar­gue that eighth graders are not yet in a po­s­i­tion to pick a spe­cif­ic ca­reer path? “You’d be sur­prised how well-versed stu­dents are,” says Barnett of the South Car­o­lina Cham­ber of Com­merce. “It’s not a lifelong com­mit­ment to a cer­tain ca­reer they’re mak­ing — just a de­cision to look at spe­cif­ic paths.”

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