What do we mean by career-connected learning?

Educators, employers, and funders need to get on the same page about career-connected learning if they want to prepare all students for success, writes Michelle Cheang of Catalyze.

The city of Philadelphia recently launched a new initiative to deliver year-round career-connected learning to thousands of students. The program will kick off this summer by providing job-based learning opportunities to 8K young people. The initiative follows expansions of similar programs across the country, from Massachusetts to the State of Washington. And these increased investments in career preparation are not limited to the local level—earlier this year, the Biden administration awarded $25M in grants to advance career-connected learning in high schools. 

Michelle Cheang, director of Catalyze

This learning approach is clearly gaining steam—and for good reason. Career-connected learning bridges the gap between student interests and industry needs, providing a powerful tool to dismantle structural barriers that hinder the aspirations of learners. This has proven particularly true for learners from under-resourced communities who have historically been deprived of the resources and support networks necessary for navigating the complexities of career development and advancement.

But while more and more educators, policymakers, and funders agree on the importance of preparing students for fulfilling careers after high school, there is less agreement over what that preparation should look like in practice. Many approaches to career preparation are disconnected or siloed, often informed by competing institutional priorities rather than students’ needs. Schools, colleges, employers, and funders all have different ideas about which solutions are needed and what problems must be solved.

The result is a patchwork of activities, interventions, and programs that lack continuity across a learner’s journey. This strategy fails to meaningfully move the needle, as less than half of middle and high school students say they are learning skills relevant to the jobs they want.

Instead, we need a shared definition of career-connected learning to help prepare all learners for success. 

Getting organized around career-centered learning begins with understanding who these programs are for—and conversations with K-12 leaders and educators often fall into two competing camps. On one end of the spectrum, some believe such learning is only for students who are not college-bound, as they need immediate preparation to find a job right after high school. Conversely, others believe career-connected learning is better suited for high-achieving, college-bound students, as they are better prepared to succeed in such programs. In truth, every student should have access to these equitable pathways that lead to rewarding careers.

There is also confusion over when students should first experience learning that is connected to careers. The answer is, once again, deceptively straightforward—as early as possible. Ideally, students should encounter such learning opportunities by middle school, with guided career exploration to help them form a career identity, learn about their interests and strengths, and gain awareness of potential career paths. 

As students enter high school, this exploration should cement into career preparation, including dual enrollment programs, experiential learning, apprenticeships, and other pathways that blur the line between learning and work. 

While there is no one-size-fits-all model for career-connected learning, the underlying premise should be to nurture self-awareness, enhance self-efficacy, and foster career readiness—ultimately empowering students to pursue fulfilling careers. These programs should be accessible to all learners and introduced at the earliest opportunity.

Consider the work of Collegiate Edu-Nation, a nonprofit organization in West Texas that partners with rural school districts to help more students graduate from high school, attend college, and find meaningful careers. That support begins on the first day of Pre-K and continues through the day a student graduates from college or begins their career. 

Meanwhile, the nonprofit nXu provides schools and youth-serving organizations nationwide with a comprehensive middle and high school curriculum that approaches career exploration through the lens of purpose and identity. Surveys show that students in nXu’s program report having stronger self-advocacy skills, confidence, and self-awareness compared to their peers not in the program.

These robust and intentional approaches are key to the success of these initiatives. Schools, colleges, employers, and funders all need to be aligned to create the structures that allow students to seamlessly move through education and work, gaining skills with high labor market value along the way. 

Without establishing a common understanding of career-connected learning, our systems will remain profoundly fragmented—and students, especially those from historically underrepresented groups, will continue to pay the price.

Michelle Cheang is director of Catalyze, a funder collective that focuses on jump-starting innovations in career-connected learning through grant-making, research, and storytelling.

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