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Career Readiness: In Theory and In Practice

By Luanne Teller

Most ABE practitioners would agree that conceptually college and career readiness is critically important for adult learners. In addition to the academic rigor laid out by the newest College and Career Readiness Standards for Adult Education, students will need comportment skills to secure and hold jobs.

As we think about how to translate such concepts into practice, we might discover, as I have in my work experience, that preparing adults for career readiness requires targeted support and guidance. This article focuses on several concrete activities that practitioners can readily implement to help their learners prepare to be successful in employment.

These recommendations evolve from research and experience in a job skills training and placement program that led to 92% placement of adult learners in full-time jobs with health care benefits. Most of our students had never worked, and those who had worked were in low-wage, part-time jobs that were not in a professional setting. How did we achieve these outcomes? In part, our success was due to a dedicated Job Developer who was responsible to 1) teach job readiness, job search, and interview skills, and 2) connect with good employers to determine what kinds of jobs and career paths were available, and what skills students needed to be ready for those jobs.

How can the lessons we learned translate to ABE programs? Some of the strategies we implemented are identified in this article. You may need to modify them based on your students and your program, but the basic premise remains—success is not solely based on what students know; it is also based on what they can do. The distinction is subtle but powerful.

Adult learners who have never worked in a professional setting are best served when we provide them with opportunities to practice and internalize critical behaviors in the relative safety of our supportive programs before going out into the “real world” where they will be left to their own devices to either “sink or swim.” Even ABE learners who are already employed will benefit, since the majority need jobs with better wages and better opportunities for growth.

Here is a list of 10 strategies we designed to help prepare adult learners with essential skills they will need for success in careers. Which ones are you already doing? Are there others that you could try? How might you adopt or adapt these activities to provide real-life practice for your learners?

1. Invite potential students to “interview” for your program, rather than simply fill out an application. This provides the experience of articulating what they hope to accomplish, exploring what you have to offer, and understanding what you expect from them.

2. Require full and punctual attendance. Our students have many demands on their time, but realistically, poor attendance will cost them their jobs, and we are doing them a disservice when our actions send the message that somehow it’s ok. Require students to call in if they will be out sick or arrive late. Require them to ask for approval in order to leave early. When a student’s attendance suffers, hold a meeting with that student to give a verbal warning. Work to identify the contributing factors and help the student develop strategies to address the problem. Could you check with local employers to see how closely your attendance policy aligns with theirs?

3. Set a professional dress code and require students to comply. Think it’s too tough? Many a worker has been reprimanded or sent home for inappropriate dress. Do you think your students know exactly what professional dress is? Isn’t it better for them to be advised by you when they misstep than to suffer that embarrassment on the job?

4. Give students “Performance Reviews” after 30 and 90 days. Ask students to complete a self-assessment of strengths and areas for improvement, and set short-term and long-term goals for themselves. Ask them to sign their “evaluations”. This activity will benefit learners not only by preparing them for actual reviews but also by helping them take ownership of their learning and progress towards their goals.

5. Teach proofreading. In the work world, it’s helpful to know proofreading marks. Think it adds a lot of work? Not necessarily. When you teach grammar, contextualize it in the form of a business letter or report. Ask students to edit their own work, or each other’s work using proofreading marks. Have them redo the document until it’s perfect.

6. Require at least some things to be “perfect” and explain why. In a classroom, a 98% test score is impressive. But when a student gets a “98%” on a business letter, that means 2% of it contains mistakes. In the work world, that’s not acceptable, in fact it’s unusable.

7. Contextualize fractions, percents, and decimals by teaching how to calculate discounts, payroll taxes, and budget projections. Have students prepare monthly and annual household budgets to help project the minimum salary they can accept. Have them consider if/then scenarios and enter the information into Excel. “If I get x-salary and have to cut expenses by 10%, how much would that be and where could I cut back?”

8. Require students to arrange and conduct a job shadow in their desired career. They will need to prepare by networking and researching careers that interest them to learn about the working conditions, the necessary skills, the types of jobs and career pathways available, and whether or not there are good employers in the area with jobs that are open. Equipped with this information, a job shadow can be an invaluable experience as they observe and experience first-hand what it’s like to work in their desired profession. It further provides an opportunity to hear from professionals in their desired fields about their career pathways…where they began and what it took to get where they are now.

9. If students miss class because of child care or transportation, work with them to get backups. This is incredibly challenging, but again, we do students a disservice by pretending it’s not essential. Lack of adequate backups will cost students their jobs. Are there any local employers with on-site child care? Employers on a bus line? Car pools?

10. Practice asking questions. Every student should be prepared to ask essential questions in an interview; for example, “Can you give me an idea of the salary range and the benefits for this position?” or “What are your next steps—when might I expect to hear from you?” However, the need to frame and pose questions, and even ask for further clarification, will come up time and again on the job itself. Students can learn useful language in the classroom and practice with problem scenarios.

How can you build a culture in your program that promotes career readiness goals?
Imagine if you thought about your program as “on-the-job training”. What if your students were interns or employees? How would everyone’s expectations change? What would be the advantages to this approach? What if your students could demonstrate the kind of conduct that employers seek when looking for someone to promote? If they don’t learn these skills in your program, who will teach them?

You will be giving your learners an advantage by fostering their understanding of employer expectations in a professional setting while building their capacity and confidence to meet (and exceed) them. The beauty of having them learn in your program is that students have access to support and advising so they can learn from their mistakes, grow over time, and get honest feedback about where they need to change.

Help students plan for next steps. What should they look for in an employer? Can they find companies with tuition reimbursement to help them pursue further training? Is there on-site professional development to help prepare them for more responsibilities and an opportunity to grow within the organization? If already employed, what’s the “next job up” on the ladder, and what skills would students need to be eligible for that job? Do they dare to consider changing jobs if the long-term potential for growth doesn’t exist where they currently work?

Talk about success. What does it look like? What supports do your program and staff need to get there? How will you know when you’re there? Respect student voices...after all, it’s their success we’re working towards. Work with them to create your own program list of activities and strategies based on what they tell you they need.

Finally, set high standards for all. Be firm, but fair, and hold staff, students, and partners to high standards. Expect staff to model behaviors that students need to learn.

Preparing students for success will be one of the greatest gifts you can give them. It’s a gift that will “keep on giving” throughout their lives.