New Career Development Approach for a New Economy

Scott Emerick
January 22, 2013

I grew up in Catawba County North Carolina. When I was young, unemployment there was about 5 percent. More than half the furniture produced in the U.S. came from within 200 miles of my home town. But by the time I was finishing college, most of the furniture jobs in my community were moving overseas. The unemployment rate is now over 10 percent.

While I'm still very proud of the dovetail joints on my blanket chest from my Industrial Arts class, anyone who knows woodworking could tell you my prospects in furniture work were limited. Yet despite its imperfections, I loved building something with my hands and I still use it today. While I made a career in education and non-profit work, the work ethic I developed working third shift at a factory in my home town still matters deeply to me.

At YouthBuild, low-income young people (age 16-24) work toward their GEDs or high school diplomas while learning job skills by building affordable housing in their communities. The vast majority of these young people will not pursue career paths in construction or the building trades. However, every participant will build something of profound value to their community with their hands; develop valuable soft skills; cultivate an ethic of work and service; contribute to effective mini-communities of students and adults on the job site; explore career goals; and become more prepared for successfully entering postsecondary and career pathways as well as becoming contributing leaders in their communities.

Just as I benefitted from working with my hands, developing a sense of pride in my work, contributing to a team and understanding the value of hard work, the YouthBuild construction experience provides a similar experience for young people regardless of their career pathway.

When a young person is fully engaged in the hands-on work of building something real, whether it's a blanket chest, or the frame of a home, or a mobile application for a smart phone, they expand their thinking and develop habits of mind that transfer to classrooms and to careers. When done well, contextualized and work-based learning helps young people solve problems, ask questions, and organize their thinking in ways that apply to the real world. We are helping to build working hands and working minds simultaneously.

For 35 years, YouthBuild has proven the power of combining work, learning, service, and leadership development to empower young people to transform their lives and their communities. Over the last three years, we have recognized the need to evolve our career counseling approach.

Relationships and positive youth development matter most for low-income young people. In today's economy, effective career counseling must also incorporate real-time labor market data. With the support of our partners at Jobs for the Future, we have piloted their new approach called Counseling to Careers (CTC). The work uses labor market information to identify local high-demand career pathways and related postsecondary programs we call "best bets." By making information about college and careers more transparent and accessible, CTC streamlines the counseling process, empowers students as informed consumers, improves relationships between community colleges and community partners and improves the quality of postsecondary pathways.

In the mid-90's, I knew my career prospects in furniture were going to be limited because I had pretty limited talent for the work. I did not know that those career prospects would have also been threatened by labor market trends that few of the people talking with students about career options saw coming.

I did not have much of a relationship with any college or career counselors at Hickory High School. However, I was blessed with two parents who made college an option for me. My father worked his way through college with multiple jobs (most often building things with his hands), loans, and an ROTC scholarship to become the first in his family to finish college. My mother, also a college graduate, was named the North Carolina teacher of the year while I was in high school. So it's not surprising that I found the expectations for succeeding in college and the support I needed to navigate the process at home.

Unfortunately, successful postsecondary experiences within the family are oftentimes not easy to find for many young people who most deserve the opportunity. In the US today there are 6.7 million young people who are neither working, nor in college. This represents one-in-six of the nation's entire youth population.

These young people represent a tremendous opportunity for our nation. The Obama administration, many foundations, and leaders in higher education have rightfully set an ambitious goal for the U.S. to lead the world in college completion rate by 2020. For a college and career pathways agenda to work it must work not just for students of privilege, but also for students of promise who have lacked many resources that smooth the path to success.

We need to provide access to innovative pathway approaches that:

  • Support students with caring adults who deeply understand their strengths, needs and interests
  • Provide contextualized learning opportunities that connect classrooms and careers
  • Guide career decisions with real-time labor market information
  • Connect students to postsecondary credentials with proven labor market value
  • Empower students to serve and to lead in their communities and their careers; and ultimately,
  • Ensure that young people can write the narrative for their own future with support from adults who couple high expectations with high support and real knowledge of career pathways.

In this space over the next few weeks, we look forward to sharing inspiring stories about how young people across the country are taking these opportunities to write their own stories by rebuilding their education, their careers, their lives and their communities.

Thanks to the Huffington Post and the Skoll Foundation, you have the opportunity to support more YouthBuild young people in building something real for themselves and for their communities. Please participate in our Crowdrise campaign to support the YouthBuild movement.

This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post and is reprinted here with permission.
Scott Emerick is Vice President of Education at YouthBuild USA.