Winter 2022

Principals Have a Key Role to Play in Unlocking The Impact of Career Education

Meaningful career development creates opportunity for schools to improve student engagement and outcomes.

It’s not every day you hear about a high school student interested in entering the funeral business, but Christine McKie, Principal at Crowsnest Consolidated High School in Alberta, can tell you about two. At the rural Alberta school, students are exposed to professionals across a wide range of careers, from pharmacists to pilots to – yes – funeral directors.  

What McKie calls a “human library” of professional connections, cultivated by divisional Career Practitioner Lettie Croskery, is only one part of Crowsnest’s commitment to preparing its roughly 280 students for life outside of school. In addition to job shadowing, individual career guidance and industry presentations, the school has spread the provincially mandated careers course over three years, so that students have weekly exposure to career-related learning.

“Career development is not something you do for one semester … It starts in kindergarten, and it goes straight through,” says Croskery. 

Approaches to K-12 career education vary widely across Canada. In some cases, it’s integrated into the curriculum from the early grades. Some provinces have a mandatory high school careers course, whereas others offer multiple optional courses. 

With students facing a rapidly evolving labour market and complex decisions about future pathways, the Council of Ministers of Education (CMEC, 2017) has argued that career-management skills and tailored supports are needed more than ever. Given the patchwork approach to career development in Canada, schools – and their leaders – can play a significant role in shaping meaningful career education. 

Why career development matters

A growing body of evidence illustrates the impact of career education. The OECD (2021) reports that students who were exposed to career guidance had better outcomes in terms of wages, NEET (not in education, employment or training) rates and job, career or life satisfaction. Career development has been connected to supporting positive mental health (Redekopp & Huston, 2019). In Canada, the Social Research and Demonstration Corporation (SRDC, 2020) found that high school career education can affect student outcomes in education and
in the labour market. 

“Career education is quite possibly the most important topic that we cover in our education system,” says Reuben Ford, SRDC Research Director. At its broadest, Ford says, career education is preparation for life. It helps equip students for the complex set of decisions they will have to make going forward.

Importantly, SRDC (2020) found that career interventions that made a difference were particularly influential for students from lower-income families. This underscores the importance of ensuring all students access career education; it can help level the playing field. 

A desire to create more equitable career education has prompted a paradigm shift in New Brunswick to deliver career education through the lens of universal design for learning. UDL focuses on providing career development experiences to meet the needs of all learners (Berry, 2020). 

“What we were recognizing was that it was privileged learning,” says Tricia Berry, Learning Specialist for Universal Design for Career Education at the New Brunswick Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. “Only certain students were accessing certain programs like co-op … Not every student would go to guidance. Not every student would have family members who could advise them.” 

Given the influence of career-related learning on student engagement (Manitoba Education, 2011), introducing these concepts before high school can have an impact. “The earlier you can start to have those conversations, I think the more insight kids will have into the importance of staying in school,” says Rhonda Taylor, CEO of Career Trek, which partners with Manitoba schools to deliver career education.  

The role of principals

While teachers and counsellors may play the largest role in delivering K-12 career education, principals also have an opportunity to make an impact. 

In Alberta’s Livingstone Range School Division, where one career practitioner supports three schools, Principal McKie knows it’s important for educators to see that career education is valued. “If career development kind of falls lower in the priority, the staff are going to sense that,” she says. 

Adriano Magnifico, a Career Development Consultant in the Louis Riel School Division in Winnipeg, says it’s up to principals to decide that career development is a priority – and then get educators on board.

“Principals can say, ‘It’s super important,’ and then impose, and it won’t work. But if they bring their team along, if they help them understand how important it is and they buy into career development as an essential piece of every high school kid’s journey and process, then you have potential to move forward,” Magnifico says. 

Across the country, these sentiments are echoed by Student Support Teacher Cameron Snow, who recently co-authored a new career development course for Newfoundland and Labrador. Snow agrees that career education starts with support from school leaders, and suggests that the smaller the school, the greater the influence a principal can have on career education.

“I think a principal has to be a steward of career development education, and a principal also has an important role in terms of scheduling and teacher assignments within the building.”

Moving the needle

Making changes to K-12 career development is not without its challenges. Schools must juggle evolving curricular demands and graduation requirements, sometimes amid budget cuts. And, of course, there’s COVID-19. Despite this, principals and career professionals are doing innovative work to support students across the country. Among their many suggestions to advance career education: building relationships and connecting career to curriculum. 

Drawing on external supports

Shifting how career education is delivered doesn’t have to mean starting from scratch. From Saskatoon, Nutana Collegiate Principal (and former career education co-ordinator) Tammy Girolami suggests leaders should look to other schools for ideas and then adapt them to their own context. “My advice is to find those bright spots, find the schools that are doing this really well. Go on visits, ask questions, talk to teachers who are the ones that are doing the work,” says Girolami.

Principals also can play a key role in building partnerships outside of the school system to create opportunities for students. Dunovan Kalberlah, Principal at Bay View High School in Nova Scotia, says it’s the responsibility of the school leader to liaise with industry and government. Kalberlah was part of global conversations that informed the province’s new Technology Advantage Program (TAP) pilot, a career exploration initiative that combines classroom learning with experiential opportunities.

Kalberlah’s focus is on student needs in any conversation with external partners, who “may have their own particular set of wants and needs that might be in the best interest, or not, for your students.”

“So, my role would be, what’s best for my kids?” Kalberlah adds. “What are they offering, and can we meet in the middle?”

Given that schools may be facing resource constraints, Career Trek’s Taylor adds that building relations with community-based organizations can also support students’ career development – whether in the classroom, in after-school programming or during the summer. 

Bringing career development into the classroom

Some educators and leaders suggest that the way forward for career education is to integrate it into all classes. This helps ensure that every student comes into contact with career development frameworks, says SRDC’s Ford. Knowing why they have to learn the subjects they are taught, and how these align with their interests and goals, also supports students’ persistence in school (CCDF, 2020). 

“Everyone is a career influencer,” argues Berry, of the New Brunswick government. “That still requires a lot of conversation for folks to see it as part of their responsibility and not just the responsibility of the guidance counsellor or the careers teacher.”

Girolami also sees a role for career education throughout the curriculum, to help students understand the relevancy of what they’re learning. “What is it about math that’s going to get these kids excited and see the importance of this? Often that is through a career lens,” she says. “And so, I think as administrators, we have to support that and find ways to get that excitement in our teachers.”

A bright future

As a principal, it’s your goal to optimally prepare your students to exit high school equipped with a sense of purpose, the social-emotional skills to succeed in life and the resilience to reach their goals. Career education is the answer. 

Berry, T. (2021). Applying universal design as a pathway to career education. Careering magazine.
CCDF. (2020). Transitioning from Public School to Post-Secondary Education in the Atlantic Region.
CMEC. (2017). CMEC Reference Framework for Successful Student Transitions.
Manitoba Education. (2011). Successful Future for All Students: A Guide to Career Development Programming for Manitoba School Leaders.
OECD. (2021). How youth explore, experience and think about their future.
Redekopp, D. & Huston, M. (2019). How career development is also a mental health practice. CareerWise.
SRDC. (2020). The role of career education on students’ education choices and post-secondary outcomes: Final research report.

Lindsay Purchase is the Lead, Content, Learning and Development for the charitable organization CERIC, which advances education and research in career counselling and career development. If you want to learn more about these topics, don’t miss our upcoming virtual Cannexus22 National Career Development Conference (Jan. 24-26) and sign up for our free CareerWise Weekly newsletter for the latest news and resources.

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