Choose Your Future

Like many, my friend Paul stepped out of college and has struggled to find jobs with decent wages.

It is hard for Paul and his family to make ends meet, much less balance the increasing costs of baseball, soccer and other expenses required to enable his son to take advantage of opportunities.

Paul is part of a growing number of Americans who are considered “underemployed”. He has tremendous social skills but does not have the college degree needed to advance in his current employment.

Now, a new law that provides career development support offers hope for Paul and others in his situation.

In July 2014, President Obama signed the Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act (WIOA) which will go into effect in Summer 2015. This supersedes the Workforce Investment Act WIA of 1988, which was enacted to support employment services provided in “one-stop” job centers and local workforce development agencies.

The new law expands performance measures beyond merely placing people in jobs. It includes career and education planning so as to take advantage of higher paying job opportunities.

WIOA will provide access to quality career development programs throughout life so as to enable people to identify career goals and build skills through further education and training.

Since 2008, my colleagues at the National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth and I have been studying career development programs that provide personalized career and education planning skills.

Our research indicates that once supported in developing career goals, youth with and without disabilities were found to naturally select more rigorous courses, identify two and four-year programs to pursue, and seek out volunteer and other work opportunities to become employable in those careers.

Students identify their own goals

It is never too late to start. And even a two-year college plan provides a range of programs that will enable Paul and others in his situation to move into higher paying occupations.

For my friend Paul, this may mean completing a few college courses to move into a higher paying job within his organization. For others, it may mean a longer term commitment to education. Either way, the goal is helping each person define his/her career goals and find the education pathway to get there.

In our research, we found that the best programs encourage students to explore and identify their own interests. In the process, students become aware of the wide range of occupations that match those interests and come to identify learning opportunities needed to enter those occupations.

Technology is being used to support career development efforts.
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To achieve these goals, technology is being used in ways that support these efforts. For instance, Paul and I were able to use his current job to quickly map his favorite skills to a range of higher paying occupations using an online career information system available here in Massachusetts. The federal government also has a free system available.

Using the online system, we found two-year and four-year colleges that were nearby and would enable Paul to be promoted within his company or become attractive to other employers.

Once Paul took the initiative, these tools helped him learn how he could move up in his organization. His current employer agreed to pay for a good part of his education as well.

In other words, the WIOA enables those who want to take the initiative to develop new skills and move on to new careers that are commensurate with those skills.

Career development for staff

While WIOA holds immense promise, the irony is that there are few career development opportunities for the staff of organizations working with WIOA. And career development prospects of these staff members is a big concern for researchers.

To be fair, many staff members within these agencies and organizations do possess the advanced degrees or certification needed to offer career planning and counseling services. But many do not.

The education pathway for their staff would include gaining a graduate degree in counseling or a certificate in Career Facilitation from the National Career Development Association (NCDA). This is not a simple task, but it offers an opportunity for higher education institutions to design a certification process.

Through this, we hope that they, like my friend Paul, will be able to receive an increased salary that is commensurate with these advanced skills. These steps will help recognize the critical role of workforce development professionals in improving quality of life for the people they serve.

And, just like my friend Paul who now has found his own opportunities, we hope that through this new law, many underemployed American workers find access to the high paying jobs to which they aspire.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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