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Build Career Interest Early

By Rebecca School | April 2021

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Career exploration can be a real motivator for students, starting as early as elementary school. It inspires some to step up their attendance and classwork efforts, while helping others broaden their focus. Because students don’t have to choose their career path while in elementary school, they can explore endless possible futures and get excited about opportunities in high school (and sometimes middle school) through career technical education (CTE) programs. I use my district’s CTE programs as a springboard for elementary school career exploration.

Some students may not be interested in the particular careers high school CTE programs can provide, but in most cases the credentials earned provide skills that help prepare them for higher-level education. Automotive technologies might lead to a career in NASCAR or mechanical engineering. Computer-aided design might benefit someone interested in architecture, interior design or civil engineering. Nursing assistant programs might prepare students for nursing, physical therapy or medical degrees. Sports medicine programs might be a good option for the high school sports star.

And these programs give students relatively low-risk opportunities to try things and discover if they really want to continue along that career path. If students find out in high school that they love art but not the graphic arts offered through a CTE program, it can help them head down a better path without spending more college tuition and taking additional classes.

Entry into some CTE classes is becoming competitive because of the advantage they give both students interested in a four-year degree and those planning a different path. School counselors and students are seeing how CTE programs can help students take advantage of internships, generate letters of recommendation that help them stand out on applications and expand their experience on their Common App to show dedication to a career cluster and demonstrate work ethic.

High school CTE programs can mean:
  • Free college credit (often up to a year)
  • Summer jobs that pay more than minimum wage 
  • Summer internship opportunities
  • Marketable skills to fall back on if needed 
Many parents are thrilled to hear school counselors are exposing their children to skilled trades. They are proud to have their children look at careers that may not require four-year degrees and examine respected careers that may also be family traditions. In our school, this has helped improve relationships with some parents who feel unseen, undervalued or judged for their own career paths.

CTE prepares students for good-paying jobs no longer readily available with only a high school diploma. Students with more than two credits in a CTE program are more likely than other high school students to graduate from high school and attend college or other postsecondary education. Most programs also offer college credit, giving students another way to get free college credit.

Starting in kindergarten, we introduce students and their parents to the six traits – realistic, investigative, artistic, social, enterprising and conventional – we have in differing degrees. with self-directed interest inventories targeted to younger students, we can help students home in on appealing future career paths. I use a free downloadable interest inventory from the Hawaii Department of Education, but many are out there.

Career Exploration Gallery Walk
To expose students before high school to different CTE careers, my school holds a Career Exploration Gallery Walk for fourth-graders. On the day of the gallery walk, we invite students to dress in colors associated with their interests/traits. Those colors match the color codes they’ll see on posters throughout the hallway about different careers. Staff wear gear from their colleges and universities.

Students can look at all careers, but we want them to notice if their strengths and traits align with particular careers. The event also includes:

Hands-on activities: I partnered with a school counselor at our CTE program to brainstorm hands-on activities. Among other things, she has provided mannequin heads for cosmetology; blood pressure cuffs, digital thermometers and pulse oximeters for nursing and sports medicine; snap circuits for IT; and firefighter uniforms for first-responder academies.

Current CTE students: Current CTE students from our programs visit the school once a year and give the elementary school students a chance to interview them about the CTE programs. 

Pictogram and photograph banners: We use banners to show what some of the careers look like, what kind of additional training or college might be needed and how that often results in more money. Seeing the dollar clipart increasing often gets students interested in looking beyond the entry-level aspects of a particular career. They can see how much more underwater welding pays than production welding or how much more a detective can make compared with a police officer. 

In a typical year, the students review the Career Exploration Gallery Walk in their classroom before attending in person. It helps them absorb some of the information and identify some of their interests before the excitement of the in-person interactions and activities. In 2020–2021, the gallery walk was online, so I added video clips about the careers and interviews with current CTE students, and “try-it-yourself” activities to do at home. I invite you to use and customize my 2020–2021 virtual gallery for your own school.

In addition to a fun activity students look forward to each year, the gallery walk helps me in my work with individual students. When students express interest in particular careers, I use those interests in motivational counseling. I can also help the CTE department decide where to expand their programs based on which areas are generating the most interest among elementary students. 

The fact that 75% of my fourth-graders are now considering at least one CTE program for high school is huge. One of the greatest outcomes, however, is the overwhelming positive response from our whole community. Parents/guardians, students, staff, local first responders and other professionals have loved this program. The support this gives our school and the relationships it strengthens are priceless.

The Career Exploration Gallery Walk is the result of three years of collaboration with my local CTE program, Four Cities Compact. I encourage you to contact your CTE program to learn more about the opportunities in your district for students to learn real-world skills and how you can use this to make a far-reaching impact.

Rebecca School is a school counselor for Norton City Schools in Norton, Ohio, and the 2020 Ohio Elementary School Counselor of the Year. She can be reached at