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Perspective | Unlocking futures: Empowering middle schoolers through career exploration

Learning by exploration is one of the easiest and most effective ways to introduce students to potential career pathways. By engaging middle school students in career exploration, we can begin to foster interests, skills, and abilities and provide students with a roadmap for future success. 

Why does career exploration matter?

The career exploration process involves learning more about oneself, researching options, trying new experiences, and creating a plan to reach goals. Career exploration exposes individuals to different fields of study and working environments and shows where an individual’s particular interests and skills can fit and grow.

There are many benefits to career exploration:

  • Improves the student’s attitude about career possibilities and sets goals for them to achieve.
  • Provides a better vision of how they fit into the world of work.
  • Increases the likeliness that a student will plan their high school courses of study and skills enhancement to center on their goal.
  • Increases the likelihood that a student will complete high school and pursue higher education.

What age should we engage students?

Career exploration is important for students of all ages. In 2018 the American Student Assistance (ASA) conducted a survey of guidance counselors and the result showed that 80% agreed that high schoolers are overwhelmed with education and career-decision making. Further research has identified middle school as a prime time for students to benefit the most from career exploration. At this age, students are in the prime of their identity development. 

Middle school students are trying to determine who they are and what they want to be. By exposing this age group to various career fields, we are sharing the message that young people  can be anything they want to be and do anything they want to do while also providing them with a sense of direction.

Career academy

Middle school is a pivotal time for students as they begin to imagine what they might truly ‘be’ when they grow up. To reach students as they start to think about career choices, Cape Fear Community College (CFCC) established a summer Career Academy program — a summer camp that aims to expose students to different careers and help them understand the skills and education required to pursue them. 

CFCC Career Academy is open to rising sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth grade students from select area middle schools that are traditionally underserved. These students can explore various career options and discover their passions by providing access to career exploration opportunities. Through a legislative grant championed by state Sen. Michael Lee, R-New Hanover, the program is free for participating students. In partnership with New Hanover County and Pender County Schools, transportation is provided at no cost to and from the student’s home. In addition, all students are provided with daily lunch and snacks, as well as a t-shirt, backpack, water bottle, and a few essential school supplies. 

On the final day, the program culminates with a graduation, celebrating their career exploration journey. A video documenting their two-week experience is displayed, and prizes and awards are distributed. Family members and guardians are invited to share in the celebration.

Exploring in-demand careers through hands-on training

Over a two-week period, students are exposed to a variety of in-demand careers such as nursing, dental hygiene, electrical, barbering, nail tech, radiography, lineworker, truck driving, firefighting, law enforcement, EMT, phlebotomy, diesel, small and outboard engines, occupational therapy, and aviation. Students participate in engaging hands-on activities that expose them to each of these fields. The on-campus environment also introduces these young learners to the college experience as they interact with faculty, staff, and students.

Part of CFCC’s mission is to help bridge the gap between the skills needed in the workforce and those taught in the classroom, ultimately leading to a more prepared and diverse workforce. It is essential to ensure that all students, regardless of their socioeconomic background, have access to career development opportunities to help them achieve their goals. CFCC’s Career Academy serves this endeavor by introducing middle schoolers to career options they may not otherwise have considered.

Community demand

CFCC’s pilot program hosted over 200 middle school students during the summer of 2022. The overwhelming community response prompted CFCC to expand its program to accommodate 300 students for the 2023 summer camp. This will allow more students the rare opportunity to come onto a campus and experience career fields first-hand, using the same tools and equipment as CFCC students and field professionals. 

With the growth of specialized high schools and career-focused programming, students are being asked earlier than ever to make decisions about their future careers. Career exploration allows students to identify their interests and strengths and foster skills development.

Programs like CFCC Career Academy start students on the pathway to a graduation plan to achieve their career goals. Career exploration equips students and their families with the tools to make informed choices about secondary and postsecondary education and training. The ultimate goal of career exploration is to fill a crucial need by providing equal opportunities for all students.

Jim Morton

Jim Morton is the president of Cape Fear Community College. Before becoming president in 2018, he served as the college’s executive vice president and vice president for business and financial services. Morton is committed to partnerships with area businesses in industries, positioning CFCC as a major contributor to the economic development of southeastern North Carolina while also strengthening the college’s academic partnerships with K-12 and postsecondary transfer institutions.