What’s Wrong with Career Exploration — And How To Fix It

BridgeYear’s Reimagined Career Fair

There’s a whole lot of hype about career exploration these days. Schools are taking students on company tours and coordinating guest speakers- all in the hopes of helping students answer the dreaded question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

As former counselors at a low-income high school and now the co-founders of BridgeYear, we are no strangers to these techniques. And let’s be clear — career exploration IS needed, especially for students from low-income backgrounds who might be the first in their family to attend college. Students (like the rest of us) don’t know what they don’t know, so students who have limited exposure to a range of well-paying professions often see limited opportunities for their futures.

But after our collective attendance at and coordination of 100+ numerous career fairs, company tours, and career day speaker series, we’ve learned a few things about how career exploration is missing its mark:

  1. Fairs are shopping grounds first, learning experiences second. It’s no surprise that our students always came away from Career Fairs with tote bags full of stress balls, pens, and colorful brochures. Our students mastered the “side swipe” — the sly walk up to the table and the inconspicuous goodie grab and run. What our students did not come away with, however, was a whole lot of new career knowledge.
  2. Speakers are a gamble. In our former jobs, we scoured our community contacts to get professionals (especially those who looked like our students) to come in for a one-time Career Explorers talk. Sometimes the students were engrossed in the speaker’s story, other times students gave us the dreaded “Why did you force me here?” look. We’ve since realized that speaking to high schoolers is an art that can be difficult to cultivate in a one-time volunteer experience.
  3. Tours are limited to a few, hard to coordinate, and often superficial. Taking students out on a company tour is a headache. Bus capacities limit trips to ~30–50 students, chaperones must be found, and students often have to miss an entire day of important instructional time. All this would be worth it if the rewards were greater — yet when we would ask our students what they learned after a company tour, we heard many stories about lunch or the modern looking conference rooms. Other learnings were too often lost.

But what if there was a way to allow students to explore careers in a more engaging, hands-on way — that also made it easy for schools and companies to participate? Might we have more students leaving high school with a sense of direction and purpose?

These were the questions that led BridgeYear to redesign the Career Fair experience. Instead of brochures, BridgeYear has created Career Test Drives, 15-20 minute career simulations in high-growth careers.

Specifically, we provide schools and companies a new way to do career exploration that utilizes:

  1. Hands-on experiences, not brochures or swag;
  2. Trained Career Test Drive operators who know how to engage and excite high schoolers; and
  3. A versatile mobile solution that minimizes the amount of lost instructional time and maximizes the number of students who can participate.

A typical BridgeYear Career Fair is brought (popup style) to a high school gym and works with 200–300 students in one day. We set up Career Test Drives that focus on careers students don’t traditionally explore — those that require a 1 or 2 year degree but that pay starting salaries of $45K or more. To date, 91% of students who’ve attended a BridgeYear Career Fair have reported experiencing a new career they have never heard of before.

Companies looking to modernize their own career exploration outreach efforts can contact BridgeYear (info@bridge-year.org) to learn more about getting a custom Career Test Drive suited to their unique hiring needs. Let’s work together to re-engage students to consider the many opportunities they have after high school.