Career Counselling Strategies for a Changing World of Work
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, May/June 2022 Issue
By Adam Stone
Even before COVID, school counsellors had their hands full trying to steer students toward future success in a rapidly evolving workforce. Now, in the wake of the pandemic, society as a whole is rethinking what it even means to have a job (witness the Great Resignation!) At the same time, students perceive college and future employment as highly competitive.
“They are feeling a lot more pressure. Students put a lot of pressure on themselves, and they feel pressure from their families to succeed,” says Matthew Berry. A counsellor at Husky Academy in Overland, MO, and a 2022 American School Counselor Association (ASCA) School Counselor of the Year finalist, Berry notes that COVID has further complicated the counsellor’s task by limiting opportunities to engage face-to-face with students.
Counsellors’ efforts are also hindered by a staggering workload. ASCA recommends that schools maintain a ratio of 250 students per school counsellor. Yet across all schools, the average student-to-counsellor ratio is 415-to-1, the association reports.
In this challenging environment, there are practical steps that school counsellors and teachers alike can take to help prepare students for success after graduation.
Managing the Workload
Before we look at the key messaging and tools needed to steer students down their future pathways, let’s address the more immediate problem: time management. Given the staggering student-teacher ratios, school counsellors need to enlist allies in support of their efforts.
“Counsellors need to look at collaboration, finding partners to help you to deliver the message,” advises Vanessa Goodman Barnes, senior administrator for secondary school counselling in the Wake County (NC) Public School System and an ASCA 2020 Counselor of the Year finalist.
“The colleges have always been an excellent resource,” she says. “They will send in admissions officers to talk to students about majors and programs—and careers. That doesn’t cost anything, except the little bit of time it takes to call and schedule it.”
The local business community is another key resource. “They can help students to find job shadowing opportunities, apprenticeships, internships—you can’t get any better than that,” Goodman Barnes says. “They also talk to students about resumé writing, doing mock interviews to prepare them for going out and getting those jobs.”
Within the schools themselves, career technical education teachers can also be powerful allies. “My own child took health science courses while she was in high school and was able to do an internship,” Goodman Barnes adds. “She combined that with her college-level courses, now she’s in nursing school.”
Leveraging partnerships not only eases the workload on counsellors, it can also open students’ eyes to the possibilities.
“It’s important to stress the significance and value of seeking out older professionals as mentors, as they can teach, inspire, and connect students with great opportunities,” says Cindy Chanin, founder of Rainbow EDU Consulting & Tutoring.
With collaborative partners supporting their endeavours, counsellors can free themselves to focus more on efforts to get students career-ready. But what exactly should those efforts look like, and how best to make them happen?
Know What’s on Offer
In the current job market, formal credentials aren’t everything. Employers are looking to certificates and other modes outside traditional college as they make their hiring decisions. Counsellors need to keep pace with these changes, says Marianne Matt, a counsellor at Capital High School in Madison, WI.
“Companies are offering paid training to attract young people. There are now apprenticeships in IT. Many health care facilities offer training to become medical assistants or nursing assistants for free,” she explains.
“This means that we school counsellors have to keep learning and growing ourselves,” Matt adds. “I am learning more about the new apprenticeships and I am also learning how to help students to create a plan that helps them to navigate these new and exciting careers and the careers that will be in the future.”
Some say we are at a crucial moment in this regard. “This is the most critical time for school counsellors to be participating in professional development for career-focused education and honing their craft,” says Bill Stiles, former guidance counsellor and Manager of Strategic Partnerships at American Student Assistance.
Start at Home
Most students have a ready example of what the world of work looks like: their parents. That can be a starting point for counsellors.
“I encourage [students] to talk about what this looks like in their own families,” Berry says. “What do the people in your family do? What do your parents do? I’m amazed by how many kids don’t have that conversation sometimes with their families.”
With this approach, “you’re starting with something familiar,” he explains. “And we know that sometimes what your family does may also be an interest of yours.”
Employers are looking for “dependable, reliable, and trustworthy employees. I help [students] explore ways they can bring out these characteristics in themselves, whether it be through attendance, community service, [or] task completion,” says Jennifer Kline, EdS, a school counsellor at Festus High School in Missouri.
Her approach is to empower students “to set attainable goals and find strengths to build on. When they are struggling or failing, I help them see what they are doing well, even if it is not the outcome they want. Then we find ways to build on those strengths and improve their weaknesses,” she says.
“The more students see that people recognize the ways they are successful, the more their employability skills grow and their responsibility improves,” she adds.
Get Them Engaged
A key piece of career readiness involves getting the students to do their own research: sending them out to discover the options for themselves.
“Part of that is about them developing those skills, learning how to do that work independently, because they are going to be doing independent work in the future,” Berry says. “When they do their own research, you’re promoting critical thinking and building on creativity.”
In addition, he says, having students do their own research gets them more engaged in the process of planning for the future.
In order to fully realize their career options, young people need to understand not just what’s out there and available, but also what they can bring to the table. Internal exploration drives focus, and can help alleviate the pressure that comes with facing an unknown future, Chanin says.
“Rather than students asking themselves, ‘Am I smart enough?’ or, ‘Am I good enough?’ they can be encouraged to ask themselves, ‘How am I smart, creative, impactful?’” she says. Counsellors can seek out opportunities “for students to lean into their strengths, giving them more agency to pick and choose courses that are more aligned with their talents, interests, skills, and values.”
Make It Tangible
To make current-day career opportunities more real for his students, Berry has them attend local job fairs—not to apply for work, but to observe and interact with employers.
“They need to hear other people talking about the world of work and what they do,” he explains. “When students go to a career fair, they actually see different people, they listen to what they do, and have tangible examples of what that looks like. They walk away from that with a better sense of where their interests lie, and they can connect their learning to the world of work.”
The Teacher’s Role
School counsellors aren’t in this alone. Experts agree that classroom teachers also have a pivotal role to play in supporting their efforts.
“The responsibility to help children prepare for the world of full-time work shouldn’t be on the shoulders of guidance counsellors alone,” says Byron Adams, K–12 education strategy leader at Qualtrics, a software company.
“Teachers are at the front lines of helping kids learn, grow, and prepare for working life one day,” he says. “In classrooms, kids not only gain valuable knowledge, but they also learn how to work with others, tap into their own creativity, and accomplish hard things.”
In the even bigger picture, educators need to align their classroom strategies with modern realities, explains Lindsey Wander, founder and CEO at WorldWise Tutoring. “Many of our schools are still operating with the industrial age mentality of memorize and repeat. This is simply not relevant to the rapidly changing, innovative, and multi-faceted world in which we currently live,” she says.
“Instead, we should be teaching children how to think critically, creatively problem-solve, advocate, and lead,” Wander explains. “Society needs to shift its perspective to realize that the purpose of education is not to get high marks, but to actually learn the necessary life and career skills.”
In practical terms, “it’s important to give students the opportunity to encourage a culture of collaboration within a classroom setting,” Chanin adds.
“Learning to engage with others at a young age is very valuable and can translate years later to interpersonal skills that will help young adults effectively navigate the working world,” she says. “Teachers can help foster this culture by creating a space in which students feel confident and comfortable sharing their ideas and thoughts with others, while also teaching them how to listen and further expand upon their peers’ thoughts and ideas.”
Counsellors meanwhile can support those efforts by deliberately following, rather than leading students in their journeys of self-discovery.
“School counselling can be a lot like a GPS, and a GPS doesn’t set the destination. That is up to the user. There may be a direct route, but the scenic route may be what the student wants,” Stiles says.
“As a counsellor, if you allow students to lead these discussions, you also provide them with valuable self-advocacy and help them to build confidence. You also build trust and knowledge through this practice,” he says. “Keep students in the driver’s seat, as it’s the best place to learn.”
Adam Stone is a seasoned journalist with 20+ years’ experience. He covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics.