Opening Up the Black Box of "Career Readiness"

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The effort to future-proof

“Career readiness” means:

  1. Command of a technical skill in an occupation of high need, acquired through an apprenticeship, certificate program, or one- or two-year associate’s degree.
  2. Critical thinking and lifelong learning skills that meld communications, teamwork, design thinking, empathy, and technological literacy.
  3. A crystal ball to identify the disruptions and dislocations that robotics, artificial intelligence, and the Internet of Things will wreak on the workforce of the future.
  4. All of the above.

While the idea of career readiness is taking its turn in the education spotlight, squaring the circle of these contradictory perspectives remains a puzzle. We would suggest engineering, especially in its use of design thinking, is a uniquely important element in reconciling these dissonant approaches. Well, except for the crystal ball, which might be (for now) still out of reach.

Everybody’s got one

Career readiness solutions are piling up ever more thickly on the ground. States are moving legislation on various fronts to establish stronger connections between schools and employers. Both the prior and current White Houses have supported apprenticeship programs, a rare point of continuity between the two administrations. And reports from all over the world, from the World Economic Forum to McKinsey to the Foundation for Young Australians, proffer frameworks for skill sets and planning scenarios to guide students into viable, future-proof career paths.

Both the current and prior White House teams have embraced apprenticeships as a pathway for students into well-paid, meaningful careers.

Both the current and prior White House teams have embraced apprenticeships as a pathway for students into well-paid, meaningful careers.

The CTE approach

Career and technical education, or CTE, underlies the first, technically oriented dimension of career readiness. Within this approach, the argument usually starts by diminishing the importance of a four-year degree to students’ future career options and earning power.

Consider the titles of these recent academic studies or popular media pieces:

Where the jobs are

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So what, then, do these jobs turn out to be? They fall generally into two areas: skilled-service industries (like healthcare and financial services) and advanced manufacturing or trades. More surprising than the growth in these fields is the idea, put forth in this study, that they might end up paying more than jobs held by many holders of four-year degrees.

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Nursing, for example, is booming, especially in non-hospital settings. Access to these jobs is usually possible with an associate’s degree, and annual growth is projected at over 10 percent in categories like radiology and ultrasound, dental hygiene, and practical nursing.

Skilled manufacturing work is also growing and in need of workers able to combine facility with machines and command of technical, STEM-related skills. This area includes things like computer numerical control (CNC) programming, technical machinery or systems installation and service, and trades like HVAC, electrician, plumbing, welding, etc.

On the other hand

The other pole in the career readiness argument starts with the proposition that evolving technologies have the potential to disrupt, even destroy, every imaginable form of work that people currently do. Artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, and data science all woven together add up to technologies that can do almost anything humans now do, only more reliably and at lower costs.

In this future, everyone from truck drivers to journalists to surgeons will be either partially or fully replaced by advancing technologies. And such forecasts are based just on what we can imagine as of now; new technologies are sure to expand our understanding of what human work functions might gave way to automation.

Imagining this future might well make us conclude that option number three above, the crystal ball, is the only reliable path to career readiness.

Career readiness, in detail

Nevertheless, much grappling with these ideas takes place. The National Association of Colleges and Employers identified a cluster of competencies that might equip students to make their way in the workforce of the future:

  • Critical thinking, problem solving
  • Oral/written communications
  • Teamwork, collaboration
  • Digital technology
  • Leadership
  • Professionalism, work ethic
  • Career management
  • Global/intercultural fluency

Meat on the bones

The trick, of course, is how to connect these largely content-free categories to specific interests and abilities of individual students in a real-life school setting.

The imaginative and insightful Heather McGowan, a principal at Work to Learn, boils these needs down to two concepts. “In this reality,” she notes, “learning and adapting are the best – perhaps the only – path to worker resilience across a long arc of experience and uniquely distinct careers.”

She goes on:

“That process of adaptation requires a foundation in learning agility and a mindset that prepares them for change. You might think of it this way: Mindsets are like operating systems and skill sets are applications.”

In her view, educational institutions should focus on creating mindsets more than skill sets. The operating system, as Microsoft and Apple know, is where value comes from, not the application, as the ruthlessly pyramidal world of application development shows.

Heather McGowan’s model for careers in the new economy imagines repeated, interwoven cycles of learning, working, and transitioning in and among different jobs and industries. Thanks to @heathermcgowan for the image.

Heather McGowan’s model for careers in the new economy imagines repeated, interwoven cycles of learning, working, and transitioning in and among different jobs and industries. Thanks to @heathermcgowan for the image.

Meaning …

The CTE path to career readiness clearly resembles the application side of this formula more than the operating system side. And indeed, questions abound about how intellectual the associated non-four-year education pathways need to be for them to support students through their entire work lives, not just for getting their first or second jobs.

Our career guide shows the range and relevance of contributions engineers make to our lives, using the design-based thinking and technical knowledge they gain from engineering studies.

Our career guide shows the range and relevance of contributions engineers make to our lives, using the design-based thinking and technical knowledge they gain from engineering studies.

Design thinking

We have discussed numerous times, from many angles, how STEM education, and engineering in particular, serve well to foster mindsets that can process data, adapt to change, make meaning out of disparate sources of information, and deliver outcomes of helpfulness and relevance to peoples’ lives. The engineering design process is a powerful intellectual technology for organizing experience and knowledge in exactly the kind of technology-rich, rapidly changing space we seem to be moving into.

In this view, the increasing prominence of engineering in K-12 education is quite good news. Learning the rudiments of engineering design – the thrust of engineering-related standards taking root in K-12 – becomes an invaluable career-readiness tool for students.

No obvious answers

What’s your preferred model for career readiness? How do we tailor career readiness efforts to meet the myriad diversities represented in our school-age populations? No small questions on this topic.

Please share comments or thoughts. And do pass along to interested friends or colleagues.


Eric Iversen is VP for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering. He has written and spoken widely on engineering education in the K-12 arena. You can write to him about this topic, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at eiversen@start-engineering.com

You can also follow along on Twitter @StartEnginNow.

New for 2017! The updated version of our Start Engineering Career Guide is an all-in-one resource for getting middle and high school kids excited about engineering.

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