To fulfill the demands of our changing workforce, there’s been a lot of discussion about the optimal age to start engaging kids in a more comprehensive career discovery than the traditional doctor/lawyer norm in school. While ‘younger is better’ is arguably a unanimous sentiment globally, the controversy lies in allocating appropriate resources to support earlier (than high school) intervention, with a more balanced emphasis on our most in-demand careers and skills. But, unfortunately here in the U.S., employers need employees now, making investing in tomorrow’s workforce seemingly feudal in alleviating their immediate pain. And on the educator side, schools are still reeling from the lowest reading and math scores in decades, relegating the less pressing ‘career exploration’ to the back seat.
Meanwhile, our talent pipelines continue to dwindle to a prospective 85 million talent deficit over the next five years, and poverty cycles continue to persist, despite there being enough people to fill those pipelines. Earlier awareness to these in-demand careers isn’t just one answer to closing this gap, it’s the only answer.
So what is the most impactful age to initiate meaningful career exploration in order to move that needle? Research suggests (and we agree) middle school, even as early as eleven years old.
- Enhanced Cognitive Development: According to Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, children typically enter the Concrete Operational Stage at around 11-12 years old. He considered this stage a major turning point in a child’s life, because it marks the beginning of logical or operational thought when they start to think more abstractly and consider hypothetical scenarios. At this stage, kids are equipped to understand the complexity and variety of different careers, as their ability to reason and make decisions are strengthened.
- Strengthened Decision-making: Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development emphasizes the Identity Versus Role Confusion stage starting at twelve. According to him, this is important to the process of forming a strong identity and developing a sense of direction in life. Exploring various career options during this age can facilitate the development of a coherent identity and future career goals.
- Increased Career Satisfaction: Those of any age who actively engage in career exploration tend to experience higher levels of career satisfaction based on clear expectations. Exposure to various careers can facilitate in children those same results – a clearer alignment of their interests with their future academic pursuits. Research published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior confirms that early career exploration aids in reducing potential conflicts between aspirations and realities.
- Improved Academic Performance: Educational psychology researcher Diana Raufelder published a study in the Journal of Education and Work revealing that middle school students who engaged in career exploration activities showed improved academic motivation and achievement, as well as increased self-efficacy in their academic pursuits. It essentially sets off a ripple effect: When students understand the relevance of their studies to potential future careers, they become more motivated and focused on their education.
- Reduction in Stereotype Bias: Early exposure to different careers can also help challenge gender and racial stereotypes and biases related to specific occupations. Providing children with a variety of role models and career options can eradicate misconceptions about certain jobs before they’ve ever learned them – some much younger than eleven – opening up a broader range of opportunities and promoting more equitable career choices.
While thirteen is our magic number for initiating gamified awareness and access to local careers and opportunities – specifically to under-served and underrepresented communities – in an ideal world:
- elementary school should be reserved for career discovery;
- middle school for awareness and planning;
- high school for preparing.
At what age do you start your job awareness and recruiting efforts?