The Importance of Early Career Exploration for Teens

How internships, job shadowing and other early career exploration programs in high school can guide kids' career aspirations – saving time, money and heartache.

Most parents are well aware of the value of internships for their college students – they provide valuable real-world experience, generate contacts that can help graduates land a job and they earn credits toward a degree. But really, early career exploration doesn’t just begin there.

What most parents don’t think about is that those real-world experiences should start even younger – as young as middle school or high school.

Job shadowing, full-blown internships or summer jobs are key to giving students a peek into careers they might be interested in.

They also offer a sense of the kinds of skills they’ll need in the real world – especially soft skills like punctuality, professionalism and communication.

Forging career inroads

Not every school offers an extensive internship program, but parents can help their children find opportunities within their own contacts.

“I think that parents have tons of opportunities to help them with that – especially in summertime when kids are out of school,” says Ashley Johnson, executive director of Detroit College Access Network. “Parents need to use their social networks to find these opportunities.”

Ask friends or work colleagues for leads on job shadowing or internships, or even ask if your child can have 15 minutes of someone’s time for an informational interview.

Getting them connected to the real world

Meaningful connections with adults are very important for young people, and work experiences are key for students to meet and get to know adults who aren’t family or teachers.

Adults need to understand that even the mundane parts of their day – going to meetings, making phone calls, etc. – can seem really exciting for a student.

“For a student who has never been in an office space, to get to dress professionally, go to meetings and all that kind of stuff – these are new exposures and new experiences for students,” Johnson says.

If adults are willing to share their experiences and how they got to where they are, that can be very encouraging to young people.

“No matter how messy it was, or no matter how imperfect it was, young people also need to know the path to success isn’t always a straight line,” she says.

Even one conversation can have a big impact, especially for young people who can feel that any mistake spells doom.

Heading off career missteps

Early career exploration and exposure can head off a lot of career missteps. Parents are sometimes guilty of seizing on a career path for their children and encouraging it to the exclusion of exploring other options

An example could include pushing “prestige” occupations like medicine or law when a parent has little experience with those fields. If a student hasn’t had any exposure to that career, he or she can get to college, take classes and end up discovering he or she hates that career path – but doesn’t know where to turn next.

With some real-world exposure before college, teens can get a feel for what it might be like to be in that career every day – and also think about other things they might enjoy that are related.

For example, math-loving kids may discover they like architecture or auto design, or wannabe pre-law majors might discover their true passion is social work.

Early career exploration programs

At some schools, early career exploration is part of the curriculum.

At Oakland Schools’ Technical Campuses, students interested in everything from nursing to mechatronics can do on-the-job training and internships throughout their two years at OSTC.

“Kids choose careers from experiences they’ve had,” says Amy Flynn, career development counselor at OSTC’s Southwest campus. “The bottom line is that exposure, exposure, exposure is amazing for students.”

Some students interested in various skilled trades – including disciplines not traditionally thought of as trades, such as information technology – can even have a jumpstart on early career exploration through the Going PRO Apprenticeship Readiness Program through Schoolcraft College in Livonia.

Motivated students can start taking a series of classes during high school that will prepare them for specific apprenticeships as dual enrollment students, and have their tuition and fees paid by the state.

When they complete the classes, they can interview with employers and, if they are older than 17, begin an apprenticeship program that will pay for necessary classes and allow them to earn a wage for the needed work hours towards their apprentice certificate.

Once they’ve completed that apprenticeship, they have an in-demand credential for jobs like electrician, welder or machinist that provide good wages and fairly secure work.

Summer options in Detroit

Grow Detroit’s Young Talent also provides paid job experience to high school students. GDYT connects Detroit youth ages 14-24 to meaningful career opportunities during the summer.

Students earn a wage for the six-week program – and also have access to free transportation to their jobs through DDOT buses.

Students have participated in a Microsoft training program called Imagine Academy, culinary programs, computer coding and more.

Older students can access training programs that lead to well-paying jobs, opening the door to more post-secondary options.

The University of Michigan’s Youth Policy Lab studied outcomes for the youth who participated in Grow Detroit’s Young Talent and found significant gains in school attendance, school enrollment and in taking the SAT.

The gains were more notable for students who started high school with weaker academic skills.

“The data supports the idea that jobs provide a sense of exposure and empowerment for young people to see what kind of career opportunities are available,” says GDYT executive director Jason Lee.

Many of the skills the program reinforces in its participants are also ones that matter to academic success.

“Responsibility, accountability – those things are important in the workplace, but also in the education landscape. They are critical skills young people learn when they are on the job,” Lee says.

Building skills for the future

Those key skills – like being able to work in groups, knowing how to communicate confidently with adults and thinking creatively and critically – are reinforced by work experiences. Those skills help young people now and long-term.

“The jobs we have right now will not be jobs we’re really thinking about in the future,” says Johnson. The jobs that today’s students will have may not even exist right now. But emotional intelligence, keeping a growth mindset and using design thinking are critical in the professional world.

Even when young people don’t love their internship or job shadow, it’s still a valuable experience.

Flynn says her own daughter, who attends OTSC, had an internship in an office environment and realized she never wants to do an office job. She’s now pursuing the medical track.

“It’s a test drive – not just a job but an opportunity to see if this is a space you can see yourself devoting time, energy and effort to,” Lee says.

There’s a whole wide world open to young people, and early career exploration is key to helping them figure out their path.

“Kids don’t know what they don’t know,” Flynn says. “There’s a whole list of things out there they don’t even realize exists. (Internships) are grounding them in the reality of the work.”

Amy Kuras
Amy Kuras


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