Career Exploration & Skill Development
Finding a job can be a challenge for youth. They must determine what careers are available, what their interests are, and what skills they have or need to develop. Numerous resources are available to help youth get a sense of their interest and skills as well as gain employment experience and learn about employment opportunities.
Mentoring—matching youth or “mentees” with responsible, caring “mentors,” usually adults—has been found to be an important support for youth as they transition to adulthood and the workforce.1 Mentoring provides opportunities for youth to develop emotional bonds with mentors who have more life experience and can provide support, guidance, and opportunities to help them succeed in life and meet their goals.2
Mentoring relationships can be formal or informal, with substantial variation, but the essential components include creating caring, empathetic, consistent, and long-lasting relationships, often with some combination of role modeling, teaching, and advising. One form of mentoring, called instrumental or topic-focused mentoring, focuses on a particular problem and aims at helping mentees reach specific goals, such as improving academic performance or preparing for employment opportunities.
Career-focused mentoring, a type of instrumental or topic-focused mentoring, can take a variety of forms and may focus on different pieces of career development and employment. Some examples include assisting with the following:
- writing resumes and cover letters;
- conducting mock interviews and providing support for answering interview questions;
- exploring possible careers and assisting with job, internship, or program searches;
- developing on-the-job skills (soft skills or technical skills);
- modeling behavior, attitudes, or skills in the workplace (job-shadowing); and
- career planning and goal setting.3
Apprenticeships and internships can provide on-the-job opportunities to integrate mentoring into employment experiences for youth. You can find out more about both apprenticeships and internships for youth below. Learn more about mentoring and the benefits for youth and their mentors.
Self-assessments help teach youth about themselves so that they can find a career that is a good fit for their interests and skills. They allow youth to explore
- what they do and do not like,
- how they react to certain situations,
- their skills, and
A professional, such as a counselor at a high school, trade or vocational school, college, or career training center, can help in selecting an appropriate assessment, interpreting the results, and providing career counseling.
The U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration sponsors two valuable resources to assist youth identify career pathways. CareerOneStop is a website that provides a range of career-exploration help:
- Up-do-date information on job salary and benefit information and related education and training opportunities
- Job search tools, resumes, and interview resources, and people and places to help jobseekers virtually, such as What’s My Next Move (PDF, 10 pages), a guide to exploring careers for youth
The American Job Centers (AJCs), also known as One Stop Centers, provide job referrals, counseling, and other supportive services to help with both job search and location of training and education resources. AJCs have locations across the United States.
The National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability provides a range of assessments that can help with the transition from school to employment. In addition to their focus on career planning, these resources recognize unique challenges faced by students with disabilities.
An additional online resource, Students and Career Advisors, allows students, career advisors, and parents to learn more about potential career opportunities. This resource provides opportunities for students to explore their interests, learn about potential careers, learn how to get job experience, and find additional educational opportunities to support career development.
The goal of an Individualized Learning Plan (ILP), can also be known as Individual Service Strategy (ISS), is to connect what youth are doing in the classroom with their career and college goals and aspirations. ILPs help youth discover their skills and interests, match their interests with degrees and careers, set goals, and follow through in a thoughtful and meaningful way. The Office of Disability Employment Policy has a number of resources and information about ILP. Follow the links below to learn more.
Finding available jobs can be difficult. It is important for youth to recognize that finding a job often takes time and it is important to develop a plan, schedule, and goals when conducting a search. Many sources list available jobs, from newspapers to listservs to online directories. CareerOneStop has online job listings that provide information, and knowledgeable staff at its American Job Centers are available to assist with counseling youth on various employment options. Tools such as GetMyFuture, which allows youth to search for career opportunities based on past employment experiences, can help young people identify future careers that may be available based on their previous work experience. College career centers, CareerOneStop, and American Job Centers can help youth prepare their resumes, write cover letters, and practice interviewing. State vocational rehabilitation agencies are typically represented at or can be accessed through American Job Centers to provide assistance for youth with disabilities in the job search process. College career centers can also provide valuable resources for students as they search for jobs and internships.
Soft skills are generally defined as personal qualities, not technical, that translate to good job performance. They have been named by employers to be most important for successful job performance. Soft skills can be learned through a variety of means, including classroom instruction, youth programs, volunteering, and service-learning. Learn more about soft skills and how they can be developed.
More than 50 percent of manufacturers who completed the 2005 skills gap survey reported that technical skills will play an important role in meeting the needs of employers in the upcoming years.5 Vocational training courses or work-study programs can teach marketable technical or occupational skills. CareerOneStop and American Job Centers can make referrals to local postsecondary institutions and youth-serving agencies when training and other services are needed. Not only are the people there knowledgeable about these resources, but they also can approve vouchers to defray training costs. The Center for Employment Training (CET) is a nonprofit organization that has partnerships with the U.S. Department of Labor. CET has pioneered the practice of open-ended, competency-based training that uses the workplace as the context for simulations. The individualized training allows youth to train at their own pace and explore career options firsthand. The majority of training is provided through hands-on experience. The Office of Vocational and Adult Education within the U.S. Department of Education also helps states, schools, and community colleges support technical and vocational education.
Youth apprenticeship programs grew out of the school-to-work movement and offer youth classroom instruction combined with structured on-the-job training with a mentor. The training is split between academic courses and vocational training, while the on-the-job portion provides opportunities for practice in and understanding of work-based contexts for classroom instruction. 6 Youth apprenticeships may lead to admission to adult registered apprenticeship programs after graduation. The U.S. Department of Labor sponsors registered apprenticeship programs that meet its standards. The minimum requirement for participation in a registered apprenticeship program may vary by the skills demanded for the program, but to be eligible, youth must be at least 16. Because of restrictions, some hazardous jobs are limited to individuals over 18. Participation in apprenticeships allows youth to receive the following:
- A paycheck: From day one, youth earn a paycheck guaranteed to increase over time as they acquire new skills.
- Hands-on career training: Apprentices receive practical on-the-job learning in a wide selection of programs, such as health care, construction, information technology, and geospatial careers.
- An education: Apprentices receive hands-on learning and related instruction to supplement the hand-on-learning and have the potential to earn college credit, even an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, in many cases paid for by the employer.
- A career: Once the apprenticeship is completed, youth are on their way to successful long-term careers with competitive salaries and little or no educational debt.
- National industry certification: When an apprentice completes a Registered Apprenticeship program, he or she will be certified and can take that certification anywhere in the United States.
- The opportunity to work with recognizable partners:Many of the nation’s most recognizable companies, such as CVS Health and UPS, have Registered Apprenticeship programs.7
For an example of a youth apprenticeship program, visit Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development: Youth Apprenticeship Program Information.
The Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) provides a toolkit and other resources to increase the capacity of programs to provide integrated inclusive apprenticeship training to youth and young adults with a full range of disabilities, including those with the most significant disabilities. ODEP also provides guidance on how to use the increased flexibilities in the U.S. Department of Labor apprenticeship regulations.
Internships, both paid and unpaid, provide youth with short-term, practical experiences to learn about careers, develop networks, and experience the workplace. The Wage and Hour Division at the U.S. Department of Labor has identified six criteria (PDF, 2 pages) to help determine whether interns must be paid the minimum wage and overtime under the Fair Labor Standard s Act. Internships are available in a diverse array of career fields and can be formal or informal. Internships give youth the opportunity to explore what they like and do not like about certain careers. They allow youth who might not know what career they want to pursue with a chance to see whether a certain environment, job, or management style fits their needs. Both on-the-job experience and the application process allow youth to develop skills so that they are able to enter the job market with relevant career experience. According to a 2005 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 60 percent of employers hire college graduates who had completed internships. Further, on average more than half the students who completed internships were offered full-time positions upon internship completion.8
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: K‒12
This section of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) website includes interactive resources that students and teachers can use to explore different career options, view employment projections, and learn more about the history and work of the BLS.
Connecting At-Risk Youth to Promising Careers (PDF, 5 pages)
This brief, developed for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, discusses promising occupations for at-risk youth. The occupations are based on their potential for reasonable wages, the required educational prerequisites, projected growth and demand in the labor market, and potential for individual advancement. Opportunities in the healthcare and construction fields are highlighted, as well as work-based learning and career pathway programs.
Youth Jobs+ is an initiative that connects young people with jobs, internships, and other employment opportunities by bringing together businesses, nonprofit and faith-based organizations, and elected officials to help create pathways to employment for youth. The website includes resources for finding a job and learning about the careers that celebrities, athletes, politicians, and government employees held when they were growing up.
Workforce3 One Podcast Series on Allied Health Occupations for Young Adults
Workforce3 One, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration (ETA), is an interactive communications and learning platform designed to build the capacity of the Workforce Investment System. It has released a series of podcasts that feature young adults who have been trained through the public workforce system and are currently working in different allied health occupations. This series provides practical information about allied health occupations to assist both young adults and workforce staff in developing a career plan.
Kids.gov is the official kids’ portal for the U.S. government. It links to more than 2,000 Web pages from government agencies, schools, and educational organizations, all geared to the learning level and interest of youth. Specifically, Kids.gov provides information about and descriptions of different careers so that youth can learn more about available opportunities. Separate information is targeted directly to youth in grades K‒5 and youth in grades 6‒8. There are also resources for youth-serving professionals and educators.
Youth-Focused Job Links from the U.S. Department of Labor
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration provides links to a range of free, online resources and Department resources for youth to help them develop career plans.
CareerOneStop and American Job Centers
The U.S. Department of Labor’s CareerOneStop is a free online resource that provides employment information and inspiration; a place to manage careers; a place to develop a pathway to career success; and tools to help job seekers, students, businesses, and career professionals. American Job Centers, which are career centers funded under the Workforce Investment Act’s (WIA) Employment and Training Administration, help both adults and youth explore careers, search for jobs, develop interviewing skills, receive education and training, and write resumes. Approximately 2,500 American Job Centers are located in communities across the United States.
Occupational Outlook Handbook
The Occupational Outlook Handbook is a nationally recognized source of career information from the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). It is designed to help individuals make decisions about their future work lives. The handbook, which is revised every two years, includes information on hundreds of jobs and describes the training and education needed, earnings, expected job prospects, what workers do on the job, and working conditions.
Occupational Safety & Health Administration: Young Workers You Have Rights!
This site provides safety and health information for young workers and their parents, employers, and educators. It answers questions often asked by working teens. Details about workers’ rights, links to training, information about state youth employment laws, and other educational tools can also be found here.
Office of Disability Employment Policy
The Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) was authorized by Congress in the U.S. Department of Labor’s FY 2001 appropriation. ODEP works to influence national policy and promote effective workplace practices to ensure that today’s—and tomorrow’s—workforce is inclusive of all people, including people with disabilities. ODEP provides a range of resources and information for youth with disabilities transitioning to adulthood, including a focus on soft skills, apprenticeships, and data, among others.
As a CareerOneStop website, this tool allows youth to explore careers, learn about education options, identify ideas for employment and job opportunities, and find support. The site also includes a toolkit to find local resources and information to find a job, obtain unemployment benefits, or get contacts to help with next steps.
My Next Move
This electronic tool gives individuals three main ways to explore careers, including an online O*NET interest assessment, and provides a profile of each occupation highlighting important knowledge, skills, abilities, technologies used, simplified salary and outlook information, and links to find specific training and employment opportunities.
National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability
This website, supported by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), provides a range of information on youth employment, including assessments that can help with the transition from school to employment. The website pays specific attention to youth with disabilities.
Students and Career Advisors
This tool from CareerOneStop allows students, career advisors, and parents to learn more about potential career opportunities. It provides opportunities for students to explore what their interests are, learn about potential careers, learn how to gain job experience, and find additional educational opportunities to support career development.
What’s My Next Move?
What’s My Next Move? is a career planning tool designed to assist high school students in managing education and career plans. This document guides students along the career planning process from self-assessment and career/occupation exploration to job searching and interviewing. Learn more.
Other Resources on this Topic
Tools & Guides
Videos & Podcasts
Webinars & Presentations