Focus on Career Choices Begins Early

Ashley Forte Miles set her career path early. As a student at Durham’s Neal Middle School, she learned her math and science skills could help shape a career in chemical engineering.

Today, Miles, 23, is a quality engineer with General Mills in Tennessee. And she credits early assessments and the guidance from her middle school career development coordinator for her success.

“While still in middle school, I learned about careers that I didn’t even know existed,” says Miles, a 2007 graduate of N.C. State University. “This all played a critical role in my education and career plans. It was really a life-changing experience for me.”

Getting an early start

Miles is just one of many students who start shaping their career goals early on. Resources for today’s students who are planning ahead are extensive. Triangle middle and high schools offer extensive career and guidance programs. Career fairs, assessment testing, summer internships, job shadowing, private counseling and community college programs all give students an early look at the world of work. Four-year colleges and local businesses offer programs, camps and initiatives as well.

“All the information available helps students gain a focus and then narrow their choices to various clusters of careers,” says Starletta Williamson, the career development coordinator at both Chewning and Rogers-Herr middle schools in Durham. “The assessments offered in middle school helps students as they plan their course pathways for high school.”

Career development coordinators at area middle schools work primarily with eighth-grade students. These students participate in an online career assessment to help identify their skills and interests. With this information, they can select the courses for high school that best mirror their long-range plans for going to college or to work.

In addition to detailed professional pathway courses, some area high schools offer specialty programs for various careers. Megan Kirkpatrick, the business alliance coordinator for the Wake County Public School System, works with the extensive school-to-career initiative program that was started in local schools about 15 years ago.

“Schools in our area are working hard to position our students to start planning and preparing for their careers while still in middle and high schools,” she says. “Students today cannot wait until they are in college to decide their career path. Important decisions must be made much earlier.”

Exploring career options Wake County Public School System and Wake Technical Community College have established a career resource program, H3O, available at Students can take an online career interest profile, find career descriptions and salary information, and determine course options and sequences.

At area career fairs during the school year, middle and high school students get a closer look at professions. For example, Durham’s third annual Career Expo at Northgate Mall November 2008 attracted more than 2,000 participants. Students were required to talk to at least one career professional from each of the six cluster areas.

Wake County Public School System annually hosts two career events for students. Xtreme Beginnings, held in April, is a career exploration event for about 700 students in grades 10 to 12 from all high schools in the county. More than 2,500 eighth-, ninth- and 10th-grade students participated in the sixth annual Great Xplorations Career Fair last November where representatives from about 150 businesses and organizations had displays and talked to students about careers.

Charting a path

Ana Rios Quinn, founder of AIMS Coaching based in the Research Triangle Park, works with middle and high school students in career counseling. Students take an online career assessment and then work with Quinn to plan their high school courses to help meet their career goals. She also assists students with college applications, interview skills and resume preparations.

“Today it is very competitive to get into the college of your choice,” Quinn says. “Students need to start early to plan their coursework and then develop resources to help fulfill their college and career plans.”

Career planning professionals advise students to take advantage of the resources available to them in school and in the business world. Even in middle school, students can learn more about careers through job shadowing or interviewing professionals in their chosen field.

Summer internships also are a valuable resource to learn more about a field and gain experience. For Miles, the Durham student, a summer internship with General Mills helped pave the way for her full-time job. She encourages others to start young and learn all they can about their field of interests.

“I have been very fortunate with my education and my career path,” she says. “And I can trace it back to my middle school experiences. It is never too young to get started learning about careers and educational opportunities.”

Career Exploration on the Web

Several online resources are available to help students explore career interests and options. Take advantage of some downtime this summer to encourage your teen to check out the following:

* The College Foundation of North Carolina Web site has a comprehensive component for researching colleges and careers. The site also gives resources for financing and saving for college.

* Paws in Jobland is a new feature on The College Foundation of North Carolina Web site for younger children to learn about careers.

* North Carolina Career Outlook helps students research careers and learn about the future outlook for occupations. Students can take a free online career assessment.

* Career Cruising, also known as Futures For Kids (, is an online career guidance and planning resource that is free for all North Carolina students.

* N.C. Career Resource Network Web site offers a look at the various careers in the state and necessary qualifications.

Jane Paige is a Cary-based freelance writer and mother who decided to major in journalism when the editor of the former The Raleigh Times talked to her middle school English class.

Categories: College Planning, Education, Tweens and Teens