Work-Bound Youth

The majority of youth enter the world of work prior to receiving postsecondary education or training. By age 26, 85% of youth receive a high school diploma; however, only 27% receive a 4-year college degree. The economic consequences of being in the world of work without a college degree in the United States are staggering. The U.S. Federal Reserve reported that the median income level for individuals without a high school degree was $17,000 per year, $34,000 for individuals with a high school degree, and $41,000 for individuals with some college experience.

Renewed efforts must be made to establish optimal learning environments within school and community settings that effectively prepare all youth to make successful transitions into the world of work. Fortunately, the Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) has provided an excellent outline of necessary work readiness skills and dispositions. SCANS identifies a set of five competencies considered to be hallmarks of expert workers, and a three-part foundation of personal qualities and skills considered essential for success in the workplace. The five competencies include the ability to effectively use resources, interpersonal skills, information, systems, and technology. The three foundation skills and qualities include basic skills (such as reading, writing, mathematics, listening, and speaking), thinking skills (such as thinking creatively, making decisions, and solving problems), and personal skills (such as displaying responsibility, self-esteem, sociability, self-management, and integrity).

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With this foundation of essential work skills and dispositions, the counseling profession can facilitate the ability of youth to successfully enter the world of work by helping schools and youth-serving community settings establish optimal learning environments.

One of the first models of career development, Parsons’s traditional person-environment fit model, argued that individuals and occupations possess relatively stable characteristics, and the goal of career counseling is to establish a match between personal characteristics and occupations that rely on those characteristics. Recent theory and research in developmental psychology and changes in the world of work have cast doubt on the utility of traditional person-environment fit strategies as the only means of establishing work readiness. An alternative perspective is that individuals possess modifiable dispositions, rather than stable trait characteristics. According to Lerner’s developmental contextualism, youth are embedded within environments that facilitate or impede their development. For example, the quality of teachers in the classroom influences the development of youth literacy and numeracy skills. It is assumed in this perspective that the vast majority of lower-income youth, urban youth, and youth of color possess the ability to read and perform mathematical operations. Thus, the large achievement gap between these populations and higher income and predominately White youth are accounted for by differences in the quality of learning environments, not ability levels. Establishing optimal learning environments allows youth of all ages to move toward achieving their true potential.

The SCANS skills and dispositions include both cognitive and affective developmental domains. Cognitive development involves traditional academic outcomes such as literacy and numeracy, whereas affective development involves motivation and confidence. Counselors can support educators by helping students become invested in using learning opportunities to develop the range of skills and dispositions needed to achieve their career goals. Counseling as a discipline can help establish optimal conditions for developing work readiness skills and dispositions by focusing attention on the affective development areas necessary for success in school and work, such as motivation, confidence, and social connections.

Motivation is perhaps best described by Deci and Ryan’s self-determination theory, which articulates strategies to help youth engage in activities because they find them meaningful and enjoyable rather than because they feel forced to do them or fear letting others down. Performing an activity because it is perceived as meaningful and enjoyable is referred to as internally based motivation while performing an activity because one feels forced to or in order to avoid letting others down is referred to as externally based motivation. Deci and Ryan argue that optimal learning environments are those that establish strong relational bonds between youth, peers, and adults. These environments are optimal because individuals develop meaning and enjoyment in activities in which they experience a sense of social connectedness or belonging. Therefore, youth are more likely to be motivated to attend school when they feel connected to teachers and peers. An example of interventions based on a counseling perspective designed to improve relational connections is the Hear My Story curriculum developed by Howard and Solberg. The Hear My Story curriculum involves working with a language arts teacher who provides literature and autobiographical writing lessons. The counselor joins in the activity by explaining to the class that everyone will be encouraged to read their writing sample to the class and that the counselor and teacher will be sharing their stories as well. The counselor also establishes the rules for creating a safe sharing environment. By sharing their stories, students and teachers learn about the diverse life experiences that are occurring among and between peers and adults.

Other important areas of affective development are highlighted in Bandura’s social cognitive theory, which argues that optimal learning environments include four sources of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy refers to one’s confidence in one’s ability to successfully perform an activity. The four sources of self-efficacy include mastery experiences, vicarious (role modeling) experiences, verbal persuasion, and anxiety management. Mastery experiences are those that involve successfully performing a challenging activity. Vicarious experiences involve watching someone successfully perform the activity. Verbal persuasion involves adults providing evidence to youth about their ability to perform a challenging activity. Anxiety management involves learning how to manage one’s fears about performing a challenging activity. An example of how counselors can incorporate these four sources of self-efficacy into school and community settings is the Career Horizons program developed by O’Brien and her colleagues. As part of the Career Horizons curriculum, a scientist from the community provides an encouraging talk about why girls should consider science careers, and then participates with the girls in a challenging science task. The girls not only receive verbal persuasion, but also the fun activity reduces anxiety and provides both vicarious and mastery experiences.

Additional ingredients that promote the creation of optimal learning environments have been identified by Brown and Ryan Krane’s 2000 meta-analysis of career intervention literature. In addition to vicarious feedback, their meta-analysis indicated that curricula involving written exercises, individualized interpretations and feedback, information about the world of work, and guidance on building support networks were found to have a better impact on influencing career development. Curricula that contained multiple ingredients showed stronger outcomes. Howard and Solberg’s Achieving Success Identities Pathways Program is one example of a counseling-oriented program creating optimal learning conditions within classroom settings. The program provides youth with individualized work readiness feedback related to academic self-efficacy, motivation, stress and health; includes discussions connecting school success to work success; explores the range and function of informal and formal support systems; and uses written exercises throughout.

In conclusion, SCANS offers an outline of work readiness skills and dispositions necessary to successfully enter the world of work. Integrating research from self-determination theory, social cognitive theory, and Brown and Ryan Krane offers nine ingredients of optimal learning environments that can promote the development of these work readiness skills and dispositions. These ingredients are written exercises, individualized interpretations and feed-back, world of work information, modeling opportunities, attention to building support for choices within one’s social network, mastery experiences, anxiety management skills, and opportunities for establishing stronger relational connections between youth and their teachers.


  1. Howard, K. A. S., & Solberg, V. S. H. (2006). School-based social justice: The Achieving Success Identity Pathways Program. Professional School Counseling, 9(4), 278-287.
  2. Lerner, R. M. (1995). America’s youth in crisis: Challenges and options for programs and policies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  3. O’Brien, K. M., Dukstein, R. D., Jackson, S. L., Tomlinson, M. J., & Kamatuka, N. A. (1999). Broadening career horizons for students in at-risk environments. Career Development Quarterly, 47, 215-229.
  4. Solberg, V. S., Howard, K. A., Blustein, D. L., & Close, W. (2002). Career development in the schools: Connecting school-to-work-to-life. The Counseling Psychologist, 30, 705-725.
  5. U.S. Department of Labor, Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS). (1991). What work requires of schools: A SCANS report for America 2000. Washington, DC: Author.

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