Career exploration and discussions are a key part of a high school student’s experience, and for many, it’s their “why”; why they’re at school, why they chose certain subjects, and why they’re aiming for high grades. However, it’s a turbulent time in our world, and many of our students feel overwhelmed about their futures – with climate change and Covid only two of many concerns keeping them up at night.

With that in mind, here are some career activities and ideas to help you approach career education in a mindful but effective way.

1. It’s all about soft skills!

Start your careers exploration unit by defining “soft skills” and getting students to list all of the qualities and personality traits they’re proud of. Students can brainstorm skills such as being punctual, open-minded, having a sense of humor, being patient, or even just being good at talking to people. Give students ideas about what qualities you think they have and encourage peers to give some positive ideas too – a nice moment for everyone to value their self-worth and uniqueness.

From their brainstorming, ask them to consider how they developed these skills; what was it in their life that helped them get so good at being organized and always on time? Was it involvement in a sports team? Are they a good communicator because, as an older sibling, they’ve helped to mediate younger sibling arguments? Explain how these simple things can be their key selling points for future careers – all of the soft skills that employers may want but don’t necessarily want to spend time or money training people in.

Starting with “soft skills” helps ease students’ anxiety stemming from the big decision of deciding on a career path or even the cost/pressure of getting into college. It’s also a way for students to think about building a curriculum vitae as they go for part-time employment.

During their next lesson, define “hard skills” and get them to consider all of the skills they have that they’ve had to learn or are specialized in, such as using certain computer programs or speaking multiple languages. This then naturally flows into chats about qualifications, internships, and career goals, in a supported way. Planting these seeds helps students see themselves on a career pathway rather than believe that careers are a whole new—and at times scary—journey they’re yet to start. By having students engage in critical thinking about soft and hard skills, it’s a positive way to start the unit, and they get to see their own career readiness as competent, skilled young adults.

2. Share career pathways and experiences

To help students understand career planning and pathways further, why not get some helpful friends and family members to record mini videos about their jobs. Keep these short, only up to five minutes. Within the video, have them cover their current career, the soft and hard skills they need, if they’ve had a different career, and what they like or dislike about their job. Students can use these videos to continue thinking about soft and hard skills and understand how often people’s career pathways are non-linear. The latter is really refreshing for students and often a good reminder that, over time, your career goals and career interests change. It also lets them relax and remember that the world won’t end if they don’t commit to a career decision this very second! Use these videos as a starter or “do now” task in my lesson plan.

Now, they might not always show it, but teenagers do like hearing about a person’s career journey – especially how they got to that career, why they chose that path, and other opportunities, such as travel. You could have students interview a family friend or member of their choice, focusing interview questions on soft skills, career development, and changes. This fun activity allows students to see how people may start in a part-time job flipping burgers before making more permanent career decisions.

When looking at different types of careers, have students complete mix and match quizzes about employment keywords, such as full/part-time, fixed-term, seasonal, etc. As these are often words that students have heard of but might not know. This is a quick task but builds good base knowledge and build confidence.

3. Thinking about the future

It’s important to realize that, for a lot of students, their career options and path will look very different from our own. Covid has kick-started it all by introducing more remote and flexible working. Try running an activity around the gig economy and flexibility, getting students to define each, look for some examples, and use critical thinking to evaluate their findings. This lesson helps get students excited about the future while giving them an opportunity to weigh up the strengths and weaknesses of things like the gig economy, so they feel informed. It allows for discussion around any concerns they have and to problem solve what this might look like for them personally. Another fun activity for students is doing mini research tasks or a “Google Race” to find out about jobs that once existed but now don’t, e.g. chimney sweeping, manual switchboard operators, or lamp-lighters. Students find some of the past occupations funny, and it reminds them that change is a constant.

4. Finding the sweet spot

To support students in thinking about their career choices, make a worksheet for them to complete, either using keywords or images. On the worksheet, have a Venn diagram for students to record what they’re good at, what they enjoy, and what kind of lifestyle they imagine for themselves. The latter is always fun, as students consider if they want to travel, buy a first home, or have time to pursue and master a hobby. In the middle, I have students consider all three sections and record what they want from a job to utilize their strengths and achieve their lifestyle. Students may record whether they want to work with people, alone, or with animals; if they wish to work indoors or outdoors; if they want a creative career. This supports students’ initial career research into either specific careers or broader career fields. From here, they can then access support from the school careers team or CTE.

See your role in career exploration from a mentoring point of view, where you focus on the possibilities of careers as well as the variety of careers. The last thing you want is for your students to feel locked into a five-year plan! Instead, show them that getting clued-up about careers now makes way for further productive discussion, planning, and opportunity down the track.