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Embracing the Role of the School Counselor

STRATEGY: Help school counselors create workforce development programming that is supported across the system.

In the Harvard Graduate School of Education paper “Pathways to Prosperity,” the message was clear: Career counseling is lacking in American secondary education. While historically parents and school counselors have helped students develop career pathways, more than half of students reported to the American School Counselor Association that no one in their school is helpful in career advising. Exacerbating this issue is the high current average ratio of students to guidance counselors in the U.S.—479:1, rather than the recommended 250:1.

Counselors should recognize that many students are unable to find their way in today’s economy, and educators need to do more to help ensure their success. While educational “equal opportunity” is often defined as possessing a four-year college degree, it should mean that all students have an opportunity to learn what is necessary to succeed in a chosen career. The challenge is to both help students develop awareness of the range of available careers in a changing workplace and also teach students how to connect their interests and skills in a way that leads to rewarding career opportunities.


The key strategy for counselors is to create a relevant career counseling system that successfully bridges school to career. A key component of career counseling should include adaptability to a dynamic and changing labor market; current students are expected to average ten occupations over the course of their working life. The National Career Development Association maintains that counseling support should entail a comprehensive and gradual conceptual model of workforce counseling to better assist students with the transition from school to work. It defines the nature and substance of interactions and activities of counseling and career development, focuses on the development of the skills, abilities, and attributes that employers value, and incorporates labor market data. Workforce counseling is composed of five elements: workforce foundation development, career awareness, occupational exploration, self-awareness, and work experience. (Brian Preble’s model provides structured counseling activities for students at each level.)

First Steps to Consider

  • Early start. All students should have an education and career pathway plan, approved by their parents or guardians and discussed with a career counselor or non-family mentor, by the start of ninth grade.
  • Training. Special certifications should be developed and required for all career counselors which demonstrate competency in career development counseling, analysis of career pathway requirements, and understanding of industry requirements and use of technology. Steps for training counselors are as follows:
    1. Obtain a certification that demonstrates competency in counseling, analysis of career pathway requirements, understanding of industry requirements, and use of applicable technology.
    2. Undertake a formal externship with local industry partners at least once every three years.
    3. Maintain a roster of local business and industry contacts and communicate (individually or as a group) with them at least once annually.
    4. Be evaluated on their success in transitioning the student through their individual graduation and career pathway plan.
    5. Receive ongoing training and resources regarding postsecondary job markets and continuing education options for students.
  • Ratios. The ratio of career counselors to students should be no greater than 1:250. Having this ratio or lower enables career counselors to effectively serve the students for whom they are responsible.
  • Counselor planning. Career counselors should begin planning career development activities for all students as well as career information activities for teachers. At the same time, students’ career plans should be integrated into college counseling, so that students can make well-informed decisions regarding postsecondary education.
  • Parent engagement. Career counselors should also engage parents and guardians in the career planning process and understand how to guide, inform, and involve them in a student’s future decisions.
  • Collaboration. Employers must join in the effort to implement the needed enrichments to the career counseling system. In fact, all stakeholders—school systems, government officials, and parents and guardians, as well as business and industry leaders (among others)—should work in partnership to implement these recommendations, or those of their own design, to enable career counseling and career plans that align with and meet workplace needs.

Complexities & Pitfalls

One barrier is that school career counselors typically are not adequately trained with the knowledge and skills necessary to provide workforce development support to all students; specifically, they are not properly versed in current labor market data or occupational knowledge across industries. Career counselors need to have dedicated and specialized training to guide students in effective workforce development programs. There is consensus among career counselor organizations and in industry that workforce development counseling should be informed by labor market data and industry standards. Likewise, secondary schools prioritize administrative and disciplinary issues rather than career guidance counseling, and career counseling often remains inadequate even at the post-secondary level. Finally, counselors must engage with students, many of whom are not exposed to career pathways beyond their community or family.

Current career counseling is often a piecemeal process that focuses on college admissions to the exclusion of comprehensive career coaching. Indeed, career counseling, where it does exist, often starts too late, at grades ten or eleven. Overall, there is too little shared or documented in the career counseling office about best practices to help students on their career pathways, and schools are often disconnected from businesses and the community. These issues can’t be fixed

overnight, but there are solutions that schools and communities can pursue to better advise students of all the opportunities available to them.

Guiding Questions

  • How effective are your school’s current workforce development initiatives?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the current counseling department?
  • Which staff members are currently engaged in workforce development?
  • How many counselors would your school need to train in order to provide full workforce development expertise to students at a ratio of no more than 1:250?
  • What additional resources are needed to train new counselors in comprehensive workforce development expertise?
  • How do you best message to parents, students, and teachers a shift in counselor engagement to include workforce development?
  • Do you have a network of community organizations and employers to collaborate with regarding workforce development? If not, who at the school could best develop this collaboration?
  • What are your school’s customized goals for workforce development?