What is the Right Age to Start Career Development?

JP Michel

This article originally appeared in the Ontario School Counsellor's Association newsletter, OSCA Today.

An innovative middle school located in Mississauga, ON went on a mission to answer the following question: when is the right time to prepare young students for their careers? This article explains the unexpected approach taken to uncover the answer and the incredible impact it had on their students.

To start the research, guidance counsellor Nicole Trotter and her team considered hosting a “career day” for their students in grade 6, 7 and 8. In the traditional career day format, children are lectured by professionals on different job titles and occupations. Then, based on what they learned, students are asked to choose a job title that appeals to them. This approach is based on the “matching” approach to careers, where students are asked to choose a job that they would like to commit to (often for the rest of their lives!). Unfortunately, there are several limits to this approach.

Why We Should Look Beyond Job Titles

What Nicole quickly realized was that if job titles were the central component to career development efforts, they would run into several issues. For example: 1) there are too many job titles to keep track of; 2) many jobs in the future of work have not been invented yet; and 3) students tend to focus on job titles that are prestigious, that pay well or that their parents approve of.

Considering these factors, Nicole understood that focusing on job titles could pigeon-hole students into narrow occupations and put unnecessary pressure on them to make a specific choice before they are ready. In this way, it’s possible that these career development efforts could actually be detrimental to their student’s growth.  Because of this, she decided to take a different approach.

Engage them with Challenges, Problems and Opportunities

Instead of focussing on job titles, Nicole considered engaging students by helping them explore challenges, problems and opportunities in the world of work. This approach, called the Challenge mindset, would allow them to look beyond job titles and discover the world of work with age-appropriate content.

To do this, the school used a hands-on, interactive tool called the Challenge Cards. This card sort exercise features pictures and short descriptions that helps young students discover interesting opportunities in the future world of work. Examples of challenges include Redesigning the Health Care System, Improve Artificial Intelligence and Managing the Planet’s Waste.

Creating an Innovative, Challenge-Centered Career Day

Using the Challenge Cards, the school’s teachers organized interactive activities for their students. One of the outcomes of these activities was that each classroom chose the challenge that it’s students were most interested in. What the school did next was pioneering and it led to the creation of an innovative, challenged-centered, career day. 

For each challenge selected by the students, Nicole found a professional in the community who is working on that challenge. Next, she coached more than 40 professionals to speak to youth. The key message was that they were not to focus on their individual job titles, but on the challenges, problems and opportunities they are working on now. This would bring to life their careers in a unique way that students hadn’t experienced before.

In April, Nicole and her team brought these professionals to their school to host an innovative, challenged-based career day. During the event, students were able to see their futures come alive in a unique way. One student shared the following: “We had the opportunity to meet so many cool people. They also shared their story about how they got to their jobs.”

As a result of their experience, students also learned that the world needs them to work on these challenges, problems and opportunities. This key message that “the world needs them” was driven home by a keynote presentation from career coach and founder of the Challenge mindset, JP Michel.

Keys to Success

When asked about the event and their innovative, challenged-based career day, Nicole shared the following keys to success: give yourself time to organize such a big event, connect and talk to community partners. Some of the other important factors to making the career day come to life for youth, according to Nicole, were to help kids dream about their futures and to get them curious about the small steps they can start taking now to reach their goals. Finally, it was also useful to have them explore the world of work as it is now and think about how it will change in the future.


The event demonstrated that young students not only have an interest in the world of work, but that they are ready to transform their thinking about their futures. One student shared: “At first, I only knew about police, firefighters and doctors. Now I understand that are so many different challenges I can work on. Looking at the world of work through the eyes of a challenge really empowered me. From redesigning the health care system or finding ways to sustain the environment, it really hit home. I want to be part of the change that helps to solve the world’s biggest challenges. Don’t we all just want to make this world a better place to live in? I know that I can do my part and find a job that does the same and that I will get to work on many different things.”

More Challenges, Problems and Opportunities in 2019

Next year, the school plans on expanding its career day by both re-inviting key participants from last year, as well as recruiting new professionals to join their event. Given their initial questions around career development for youth, and the results they had with their initiatives, Nicole is confident that students as young as grade 6,7 and 8 are motivated to learn about the world of work and the potential impact they are preparing to have on the world.


Photo by Matese Fields on Unsplash 

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