Middle-schoolers get head start on career planning

(Posted Feb. 14, 2023)

When school started this past fall, most Madison County seventh- and eighth-graders had a new class on their schedule: Career Explorations. Tolles Career and Technical Center instructors teach the semester-long course on site at London, Madison-Plains, and West Jefferson middle schools. The course is designed to help students get an early start on identifying and planning for potential careers.

“There are so many different things involved in choosing a career,” says Christina Van Dyke, the Tolles satellite instructor for London City Schools. “The earlier they make decisions, the better prepared they can be.”

If, for example, a student wants to pursue a career requiring a college degree, knowing that before high school allows them to enroll in College Credit Plus and Advanced Placement courses as a sophomore, junior, or senior that can yield free credits at many in-state and some out-of-state universities. This can save college-bound students time and tuition expenses as they pursue their degree.

If, instead, a student wants to pursue a career directly out of high school, knowing what career interests them most before they turn 16 allows them to line up a part-time job or internship in their chosen field to ensure it’s a good fit–or enroll in specialized career education courses to get a head start on learning the specific skill sets needed to be job-ready upon graduation.

“What’s going to help you get where you want to be and how can we give you the best foot forward on that path?” asks Jill Hiles, Tolles satellite instructor for Madison-Plains Local Schools. “We bring all those pieces together. Not all students know there are different paths.”

The Career Explorations curriculum centers around each student’s skills and interests and exposes the students to careers they may not know about but are growing and could be a good fit.

“Our worlds are so small sometimes,” says Tolles Satellite Director Dr. Kris Sander. “We know what our parents or other family members do for their careers, but sometimes we don’t look beyond that.”

“Letting them see what’s out there can help them match up careers with their personality and skills,” Hiles says. “They often have skills they may take for granted, like operating certain types of equipment or machinery, or being exposed to large animals, or just working outdoors. Not everyone has that, but because we’re in a rural setting, the majority of people they know have those skills, so they don’t see them as valuable.”

“I like to ask my students, ‘What do you absolutely not want to be?’” Van Dyke says.“That’s just as important as what you think you want to be when you’re starting to consider what’s a good fit.”

As an example, Van Dyke points to her own daughter who thought she wanted to be a teacher, but when she started student teaching, realized she didn’t like being around children.

“It was the lifestyle she liked, but she didn’t take into account some of the other important factors,” she explains. “That added a year-and-a-half to her college experience and wasted a lot of money because she didn’t think about the things she didn’t like.”

Freshmen at Madison-Plains High School are required to take a course called Launching Your Career which is similar to the Career Explorations course.

“At the high school level, it’s more about what training they need, what minimum education they need, how to get that, and where those jobs are geographically,” Hiles says. “For instance, if you want to be a marine biologist, unless you’re looking at the Great Lakes or the Ohio River, that’s a career that’s going to be very limited here.”

Van Dyke says the high school course also touches on workforce readiness skills, including how to interview and advocate for yourself and the importance of being punctual and reliable.

“It’s more about your future, not just your career,” she says. “I ask them, ‘What needs do you see in the world, and how can you use your passions and talents to meet those needs?’ Then we start looking at what careers meet those needs, and I have them do research on some of those.”

The Ohio Department of Education has identified the most in-demand occupations in the state and grouped them into 16 career “clusters” that are also discussed in the classes.

“We look at what jobs are projected to be the most in-need in the next 10 to 20 years, and when they research jobs, I have them check to see if it’s a growing job or if the number of positions for that job are fading,” Van Dyke says.

Sander says the new Career Explorations course is proving to be effective, and she hopes to expand it into more schools.

“We’re constantly looking at how we can best serve students in our partner districts,” Sander says, noting Tolles also serves Jonathan Alder Local Schools, Dublin City Schools, Fairbanks Local Schools, and Hilliard City Schools. “The more we can do with seventh- and eighth- and ninth-graders to give them additional career awareness, the better.”

“The goal is to have this program in all seven career tech planning district school systems at some point,” says Dr. Todd Hoadley, Tolles superintendent.

“This is intended to just broaden a student’s view of what options they have,” adds Sander. “We want to instill in students a desire to find something that uses their skills, their interests, and makes them happy in their adult life.”

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