How Do You Keep 21st Century Students Engaged? By Building Up Their ‘Vocational Selves’

Writing for The 74, Bruno Manno explores programs that help nurture students’ occupational identities and vocational selves. Excerpts from the piece appear below:

New partnerships are emerging across the U.S. that create innovative educational approaches to preparing America’s young people for jobs, careers and further education, helping them develop an occupational identity and vocational self. These pioneering efforts can counter young people’s disengagement in school and the disappointment millennials express when they talk about their educational experiences. 

Since 2009, the Gallup Student Poll has documented that students going through school experience an “engagement cliff.” In grade 5, 26 percent say they are actively disengaged or not engaged in their education, a figure that rises to 60 percent in grade 12. Disengagement affects entrepreneurial aspiration – the talent and energy needed to build a thriving business – which also declines through high school. Actively disengaged students are over seven times as likely as their engaged peers to feel discouraged about the future, while engaged students are nearly five times as likely to be hopeful.

Research shows that sources of social capital like affiliation with new networks and organizations create unexpected opportunities and strong feelings in young people of engagement and self-agency — the power or sense of control individuals have over their own lives. Creating a social-capital approach to school and youth engagement can contribute significantly to overcoming the disconnect and disappointment many young people experience.

These approaches also exemplify the new hybrid educational intermediaries that create “faster and cheaper” pathways to jobs and careers. Their elements include structured peer interactions; mentorships, apprenticeships and internships; visits to service and professional organizations; work-based learning;  career and technical academies; dual enrollment in high school and postsecondary institutions; boot camps for acquiring discrete knowledge or skills; staffing and placement services; and new approaches to paying for these programs. 

All these help develop young people’s occupational identity — their conscious awareness of themselves as workers — and vocational selves. They cultivate knowledge and skills for what students know as well as for whom they know. 

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