JITE v39n1 - Rationale for Career Education (1973)

Volume 39, Number 1
Fall 2001

Rationale for Career Education

Rupert N. Evans
University of Illinois

Gordon McCloskey
Washington State University

In an interdependent technological society, the development of competence to produce a fair share of commodities and services is a major objective of any realistic educational system. So is the development of ability to earn income. Competence to pursue civilized leisure and to fulfill the general obligations of responsible citizenship are equally important and closely interrelated objectives.

Emerging concepts of "career education" can be viewed as one basic part of the process by which an educational system pursues all of those objectives. Clearly, work and the products of work help make life satisfactory. Such work, in itself, can be psychologically rewarding. Useful work can also help people fulfill a major portion of their civic obligations. Income derived from work can enlarge opportunities for individuals and their families to enjoy leisure. Adequate income also enhances individual self-respect and provides opportunities to consume fair shares of the commodities and services produced by fellow citizens.

For these reasons, career education has the potential for becoming more than the catchword of the latest Commissioner of Education. In other places (e.g., Hoyt, Evans, Mackin, and Mangum, 1972 ) it has been pointed out that each of the components of career education exists in some form in the schools today. They need to be brought together into a coherent whole, extending from early childhood education, through post-secondary education of many types, to education for retirement.

In order to form a coherent whole, which is clearly related to other aspects of education, career education needs a rationale. This rationale is beginning to take shape, through speeches, books, articles, and conversations among concerned educators and other citizens. This is an attempt to add to the development of such a rationale by examining five of its related parts: need for practice in career decision-making, motivation for learning the material in the school curriculum, the importance of work to society, the changing needs for workers, and the need for preparation for work.

Practice in Career Decision-Making

Much of the current school program actually discourages decision-making by students. Each year of school is designed to prepare for the next, the curriculum is largely predetermined, and the only real decision in school is the decision of whether or not to meet the school's expectations. Even here, the full force of society is marshaled to force compliance.

Most youth make tentative occupational choices several times before they enter high school. If a child of age seven or 17 announces that he wants to be a lawyer or a truck driver, we may be reasonably sure of three things: (a) this tentative decision is made on the basis of inadequate knowledge of his own characteristics and of the demands of the job; (b) the school has done little to provide either type of knowledge; and (c) the school will say, in effect, "You are too young to concern yourself with such things. They should be decided later."

Every college has graduates who are about to complete the baccalaureate serenely confident that a decision about the type of work to be sought or any other important decision can be postponed still longer. This continual deferral of decision-making is not true of all other cultures and need not be true of this one. Avoidance of decisions can be taught as can ability to make decisions.

The recent literature on career development makes it clear that ability to make adequate decisions in this field is learned behavior. The term "occupational choice" is no longer favored, because it seems to imply a one-time, irreversible decision. Careers are built through a series of experiences, which affect sequences of decisions, most of which are revocable, occurring throughout life. Obviously these decisions can be planned; they can occur by chance, or some combination of planning and chance can be involved. Most of the research in career development suggests that most careers in our society follow one of the latter two patterns. This type of research is descriptive, and concentrates on describing what types of careers are actually followed by people who have different types of careers.

It is not enough, however, to be able to describe typical patterns of careers, which exist today. By any standard, many careers are unsatisfactory to the individual, and many careers contribute little to the goals of society. Such careers are not the goal of career education. Rather, the goal is the development of an ideal career.

An ideal career may be defined as a succession of work experiences, each of which is personally more satisfying than the one, which precedes it. Such an ideal career is much more likely to be reached if it has a firm base in career education; if the student, whether youth or adult, learns that satisfactions are built on more than immediate earnings, learns more and more about his or her interests and capabilities in relationship to the needs of society; and if he or she is taught that there are preferred ways of securing and evaluating jobs.

Some educators seem to have an almost irrational fear of teaching decision making in relationship to the world of work. They seem to feel that such instruction will lead to early, irrevocable occupational decisions, which will minimize future student options. This attitude seems a bit like that of the parent who does not allow a youth to have dates until reaching the age of 21. The intention is to keep the youth's options open; the effect is often the opposite-a liaison with the first person available after the bars are let down.

Career choice involves some of the most important decisions of a person's life. It does much to determine his standard of living and even more importantly, determine his style of life and much of his happiness. A decision as important as this should not be left to chance or have no base in education. Adequate career development demands a series of choices, extending over a period of time, and education has a vital role to play in facilitating these decisions and enabling them to be made on a more rational basis.

Motivation for Learning What the School Teaches

The series of tentative occupational choices, which students typically make, can be used to provide motivation for learning much of what the school has to teach. For some students, there is too little motivation to learn in school. The standard motivational ploys used in the school are "Learn it! You'll like it!" or "Learn it! It's good for you!" These motivations suffice for some of the pupils most of the time, but not for all of the pupils all of the time. One way to build intrinsic motivation is to show ways in which the material to be learned is relevant to the needs of society. It is possible that young people today are more concerned about service to others than any previous generation in our society. Career education provides a means for demonstrating the social relevance of most school learning by showing their relationships to socially relevant careers and, indeed, to the continued existence of society.

Perhaps an even more important motivator is provided by showing the ways in which material taught and competencies developed in the school are relevant to the individual goals already held by the student. The tentative occupational choices made by most students provide a natural vehicle for demonstrating relevance. Most school subjects can contribute something to success in each occupational field. All school subjects can contribute a great deal to success in some occupational fields. If the student can be shown how the subject is relevant to his or her personal interests, motivation to learn is enhanced.

There are two common, but contradictory objections to using student occupational choice as a motivational force for school learning: (a) the choice made by the student is almost certain to be changed and, therefore, does not provide a stable base for motivation; and (b) the school, by using the student's choice of occupation as a motivating factor, is locking the student in and decreasing his or her options. The first of these objections assumes that stability is desirable, while the second assumes that it is not.

Career development involves a series of tentative occupational explorations, each of which appears to the individual at the time to be highly important and worthy of further study. Whether the occupational choice will be the same in a month, a year, or 10 years is not important from a motivational standpoint. In order to learn to read or write, one must read or write about something. Too often the teacher wants each student to read or write about the same things, but learning would certainly be enhanced if each student reads or writes about those things in which he or she is interested. If that interest changes next month, the student will still retain the basic skills learned in the process. It is important to design instruction so that reading and writing (and other school subjects) make sense while they are being learned. By capitalizing on tentative early vocational choice an additional motivating factor can be provided.

It is also important, however, to note some of the by-products of such learning. It is no minor accomplishment to learn enough about an occupation and about oneself to be able to decide whether or not to continue in that field of interest. Neither is it a small matter to be able to come to a decision, rather than postponing it. Nor is it inconsequential to be able to research a topic and come to a conclusion.

All of this assumes, of course, that the teacher knows enough about the applications of his subject to be able to be of some assistance to a learner, and that the teacher is willing to allow students to pursue different interests while still learning common subject matter.

The Importance of Work to Society

It has always been true that no society can exist without work. Any one individual may elect not to work, but work has to be performed to furnish food, shelter, and other necessities of life for the individual and to enable society to move toward the achievement of its goals. Throughout history, there have been predictions of a society in which no one will have to work because slaves or machines will take over. Such predictions overlook the work needed to secure and subjugate slaves, and to build and maintain machines and to supply energy to them. They also overlook the psychic effects of dependency on human or nonhuman slaves. Work, by some, if not by all, will continue to be one of life's necessities, and for many people it will remain one of life's rewards, because it provides self-fulfillment and another good reason for existence.

In recent years, however, the nature of work has changed. One of the most important changes has been that unskilled and semiskilled jobs in agriculture and manufacturing have decreased sharply in number while skilled and professional jobs have become far more complicated. This has had the effect of sharply increasing the unemployment of youth. (In the 1930s youth unemployment was one and one-half times as high as general unemployment. For 40 years it has increased steadily, and now it is more than three times as high.) Youth who have had vocational education (a part of career education) have unemployment rates only equal those of the general population.

Unemployment rates do not tell the whole story, however. In order to be unemployed, one has to be looking for paid work. An increasing proportion of youth are not looking for work, and hence are not counted among the unemployed. Some of these people have looked for work, could not find it because they had no salable skills, and stopped looking. The part of career education that develops salable skills obviously could have helped them. An even more basic problem is developing, however. There is a youth subculture which rejects work, largely because its members do not understand the contributions of work to society and to individual well being in more than a monetary sense.

It is a well-known fact that attitudes are first shaped early in life, and that attitudes toward work are formed, as are other attitudes. For example, first-graders have clear attitudes as to which occupations are desirable for men and which for women, and these attitudes often do not change between the first and sixth grades. These findings suggest that the part of career education which has to do with attitudes toward work (e.g., the dignity of all productive work) needs to start in early childhood. Moreover, these findings suggest that the present elementary school program is having little effect on changing attitudes toward work.

The Changing Nature of Work

Analysis of both national and state occupational projections supports several general observations regarding occupational trends:

  1. Occupational opportunities and requirements continue to change. So do the types of capabilities involved in effective work.
  2. The rate of change is accelerating. Existing occupations become obsolete at a more rapid rate. Types of skills and knowledge required for work in most occupations are changing at a faster pace.
  3. Steadily larger percentages of workers change jobs more often.
  4. Steadily, the work force becomes more mobile. Larger percentages of workers move from one geographic location to another with increasing frequency.
  5. Numbers and percentages of workers earning incomes in low-skill occupations continue to decline.
  6. In a steadily growing percentage of work situations, effective performance requires higher levels of skill and knowledge.
  7. There is a growing similarity between capabilities contributing to on-the-job success and preparation for post-high school training.
  8. Unemployment among teenagers and young adults, especially among poorly educated members of minority groups, is increasing.
  9. The geographic locations of specialized industries continue to shift.
  10. Variations in national levels of economic activity, national priorities, money supplies, and interest rates continue to cause drastic variations in levels of unemployment in particular occupational categories in particular localities, states and regions.
  11. For all of the above reasons it becomes increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to predict exact local levels of employment in particular categories.

The above trends indicate the growing stake of individuals, localities, and states in career education plans that maximize worker adaptability and readiness for retraining.

When local reductions in force are necessary, or deemed desirable, few firms are able to find other jobs for many of their displaced personnel. That is not the primary function of individual firms. But in a fluid occupational world, preparing workers for job adaptability, mobility, and retraining is one primary responsibility of educators.

Increasing Need for Higher Levels of Knowledge and Skill

The steady increase in the percentage of the work force employed in occupations requiring higher levels of skills and technical knowledge increases the urgency of providing modernized occupational education for steadily larger percentages of the population. In the past, substantial percentages of people could, and did, earn incomes in occupations requiring little or no education. As such occupations continue to disappear, unemployment of unskilled and semiliterate teenagers and of adults in low-income occupations is increasing. This is intensifying social tensions and increasing the costs of welfare and unemployment compensation. It is urgent to plan vocational counseling services that give young people a chance to base occupational choices on much more awareness of the full range of possible choices and the scope and speed of change.

Most vocational educators recognize the facts of accelerating occupational change. Most of them also recognize the immense human and economic stakes of individuals, localities, states, and nations in planning for vocational technical educational programs that enable youth and adults to steadily earn incomes and enable industries and geographic areas to maintain satisfactory levels of economic activity. Likewise, there is growing public awareness of the heavy personal and social costs of outmoded occupational competence and unemployment.

The increasing tempo of job obsolescence, and increases in the frequency with which a growing percentage of workers encounter need for retraining, demonstrates the urgent need to plan educational programs that enable youth and adults to acquire the types and combination of capabilities that equip them for entry jobs and also for the frequent retraining necessary for reasonably steady employment during the years in which they must earn incomes.

There is urgent need for occupational education planners to recognize the growing inadequacy of vocational training aimed only at entry job capability and periodic retraining for some one other specific job. Obviously such efforts should continue to be two major parts of a total career education program. But in view of facts demonstrating the increasing tempo and scope of technological development and occupational change, such training alone does not provide a built-in mechanism for avoiding prolonged periods of unemployment and for decreasing the difficulties of the retraining which is becoming a steadily larger aspect of every person's ability to earn an income.

Both national and state projections of occupational change provide means of identifying major types of occupational opportunities generally available in the near future and major types of specialized and general capabilities youth and adults will need for job entry, advancement, and mobility. Provisions for enabling youth to acquire such capabilities should be starting points for any career education plan which avows intent to equip individuals for steady employment during their work-age years.

The following general capabilities have been demonstrated to be fundamental:

  1. Minimum levels of literacy.
  2. Oral communication capabilities, especially conversation and informal discussion.
  3. Basic science and mathematics capabilities.
  4. Motivation to earn an income and pursue necessary training.
  5. Attitudes that contribute to individual productivity and cooperative on-the-job human relationships.

Elementary and secondary schools can and should play major roles in development of those capabilities. Increasingly, these general capabilities become an essential foundation for development of specialized technical capabilities that make people employable. Likewise, such capabilities are increasingly essential for more of the retraining people more frequently find necessary.

At present much vocational counseling and training results only in placing persons in entry jobs, which soon disappear, and in retraining for other specific jobs, which are also soon outmoded. Both entry job competence and retraining for specific jobs are essential. But it is also urgent that such training include development of general capabilities that increase worker adaptability and increase worker ability to acquire new and higher levels of competence. Unless this is done, in a world of rapid occupational change, entry job training and retraining for one more specific job alone has a perpetual dog-chasing-its-tail result.

Career education planning should aim at providing instruction and counseling that provide youth and adults with the capabilities, perceptions, and attitudes that have been demonstrated to be essential for inevitable retraining and occupational mobility. This, in turn, indicates the growing need for joint elementary/secondary/trade school/community college policy development and planning.

Facts showing the growing need for general capabilities that make people occupationally adaptable and facilitate frequent retraining demonstrate the growing need for developing much closer planning and operational relationships between vocational and general education. All educational planners should carefully avoid being mired in historic but outmoded distinctions between general and vocational education. This need for coordinated planning is reinforced by the principle that persons preparing for all occupations have equal right to education that prepares them for equal participation in civic affairs and rewarding leisure. No group of pupils should be deprived of the general education essential for exercise of those rights.

All of the above facts emphasize the growing need for more effective combinations of instruction and counseling. Experience is demonstrating that simply making instruction available does not alone enable pupils to recognize its benefits, nor does it motivate them to complete adequate training. This is especially true of youth living in rural areas and urban neighborhoods where their perceptions of opportunities and need are restricted by limited, contact with the wide and expanding variety of occupations that actually exists.

As more occupations require higher levels of skill and knowledge, persons lacking such capabilities will become less and less employable. Consequently, as provided by the 1968 federal legislation, vocational education must intensify its emphasis on adequate training for pupils who need it most. It is urgent that our traditional practice of selecting pupils most likely to succeed be heavily supplemented with additional effort to assure occupational competence for those who are presently least competent and least motivated. Unless vocational education takes such steps, and quickly, steadily larger percentages of youth passing through public schools will become less employable.

Recent studies show that a growing percentage of teenagers and low-income adults in cities and rural areas are becoming unemployed. The increase in percentages of unemployed Black, Chicano, Puerto Rican, and Native American teenagers is particularly high and is growing at a much more rapid rate than for Caucasians. This brings up major questions about vocational education policy and objectives and its role in the nation's comprehensive manpower development programs.

So far vocational educators have tended to select students deemed most ready to enter training programs and most likely to succeed. With some reason and justification, the assumption has been that vocational educators' first obligation is to provide competent employees for local industries. That is a legitimate objective, which should be maintained. But current experience demonstrates that that objective alone is inadequate to meet the needs of a growing percentage of youth and the total needs of communities. Some agencies or institutions must accept responsibility for preparing even the less able youth to become occupationally competent. No society can afford to have increasingly large percentages of young people roaming the streets and becoming still less able to earn incomes.

Numerous observers predict that if the present trend continues, there will be an increase in public demand that agencies other than schools take over even larger portions of vocational education functions.

As more occupations grow more technical and as accelerating rates of change increase the need for more frequent retraining, there is a corresponding increase in the similarities of general capabilities required for occupational competence and for success in post-high school education.

The either/or notion that the secondary school can, should, or will track pupils for only "vocational" or only "college" training is outmoded by changing occupational and educational opportunities and requirements. Students will be better motivated and their plans will be more realistic if emphasis is placed on open doors and diversity of choice rather than closed doors and the illusion of one-track occupational routes.

The currently popular assertion that "you do not need college training for work in most jobs" has varying degrees of validity. But it is probably a poor basis for planning effective career education programs. Various levels of post high school training are occupationally useful to a growing percentage of individuals. And preparation for such training is an integral part of training for entry and advancement in a growing number of modern occupations.

It is more practical than ever to provide pupils with both the specialized training necessary to enter a specific occupation and the general capabilities that equip him for either on-the-job retraining or for advanced post-high school education.

Obviously, millions of people are earning good incomes without going to college. But that fact does not at all imply that they could not, or should not, have opportunity to also pursue some level of post-high school education for whatever reasons they may have.

Genuinely effective career -vocational education should help open doors to higher levels of on-the-job retraining and to various levels of post-high school education. It should not close doors. From the standpoints of pupil motivation and activation of public support it is urgent that vocational educators avoid statements implying that it does or that it should.

Preparation for Work

When the concept of career education began to take form there was considerable confusion over the role of preparation for work in such an educational plan. Some vocational educators have assumed that specific preparation for work constitutes nearly the whole of career education. Contrariwise, some general educators appear to have assumed that when career education is implemented fully, vocational education will become pass é and that preparation for work will no longer be the responsibility of the schools. Neither position seems defensible.

The existing situation is that the formal education structure provides extensive preparation for work in certain occupations and little or none in most occupations. Society provides a great deal of moral and financial support for university graduate schools. Each program in these schools has as a central focus the preparation of people for work. Graduate school is the capstone of education for vocations in many of the academic and professional disciplines. Recently there has been some concern that graduate schools may be turning out more workers than the labor market can absorb, but there has been no controversy over whether or not this type of vocational training is a proper role for publicly supported educational programs. We recognize that we need those who will push the frontiers in the liberal arts, sciences and professions. We feel that formal preparation for these occupations is desirable for society and for the individual being educated.

Similarly, a high proportion of students in four-year colleges are engaged in programs that prepare them for work as journalists, teachers, nurses, engineers, and farm managers. For all of these students there is substantial tax support. (In "public" schools this support is more visible, but fellowships, tax exemptions, buildings, materials, and services for which the public pays are vital to private schools as well.)

Far fewer opportunities are available for preparation for work in occupations, which require less than a four-year college degree for entrance. Although only 20% of jobs require the baccalaureate, more than half of high school students are preparing for college work, and only 25% of high school students receive preparation through vocational education for the remaining 80% of the jobs. Some of this vocational education is of very high quality, but some of it is obsolete or inefficient. Virtually none of it is available to students who choose to drop out of school at age 16 or whenever this is a viable alternative. Clearly, vocational education in high schools and community colleges is a vital ingredient in career education, and must be expanded in scope so that every student who needs it and wants it can have access to high quality vocational education in the field for which he or she wishes to prepare.

The remainder of the labor force is trained in quite different ways, each of which may have disadvantages for the trainee:

  1. For certain jobs in the largest firms, the company itself conducts the training, and passes the costs on to the consumer. With the exception of apprenticeship, which graduates less than one percent of the annual additions to the labor force, the content and extent of the training is controlled by the company. Sometimes the options for the trainee are enhanced, but this is not the goal of the training.
  2. Similar comments may be made about military training, except that there the taxpayer foots the bill. There are relatively few civilian jobs that need the skills of a thoroughly trained infantryman. In technical fields, if the reenlistment rate drops because too many trained personnel find jobs in the civilian economy, training courses have been redesigned to decrease trainee options outside the military.
  3. Proprietary schools train sizable proportions of workers in a few fields and a few workers in each of many fields. Quality of training varies greatly from one school to another, and cost is a bar to certain students who most need help.
  4. All jobs require skills related to finding employment and working with others, but some jobs require little or no specific preparation. The proportion of such jobs has decreased enormously as technology has eliminated the need for unskilled and semiskilled workers whose jobs can be performed efficiently by machines.

A portion of every job is learned at the work place, through trial and error, with the consumer eventually paying the bill, both in money and in frustration. In the school, specific preparation for work can be justified only if the instruction there is more efficient or if student options are increased, relative to those provided by other training methods.

Preparation for work, both in the school and on the job, is a vital part of career education. If it is not available in sufficient quantity, if it is designed in ways which fail to increase student options, or if it is restricted only to certain prestigious occupations, many students will suffer. Lower class students suffer the most because schools are concerned with occupations typically entered by middle class students and ignore the occupations usually staffed by persons of low socioeconomic status. To add insult to injury, our middle class society then proceeds to convince lower class students that this type of occupational discrimination is good for everyone.

The need for preparation for a broad range of occupations does not stop with entry into employment. People change jobs, and jobs change in ways which require additional knowledge. Each change requires additional awareness, exploration, and preparation, and hence career education. Society has every reason to facilitate these adjustments to work change, and career education offers an effective vehicle for this facilitation.


A rationale is a reason for existence. Before career education can be fully accepted, it needs such a reason for existence. A rationale is also an examination of underlying principles. Such an examination is needed in order for career education to develop parts which are complementary rather than antagonistic.

This paper has suggested that many, if not most, students need practice in decision-making and added motivation for learning the material in the school curriculum. It suggests that, as presently constituted, schools often encourage students not to make even tentative career decisions, and rarely teach decision-making. It suggests that while some students are motivated to learn because the school says they should learn, other students need to see the social and individual relevance of material in order to learn it efficiently. Career education should and can be designed deliberately to minimize these deficiencies.

Further, this paper has suggested that not only is work important to society, but also that a major goal of education should be to teach the dimensions of the importance of work to all students. Career education provides a natural vehicle for this instruction and for formation of an individual work ethic that is grounded on more than hedonism.

Finally, it is noted that our society requires that most individuals be prepared for work. We have organized our schools so that they provide preparation for occupations which typically are occupied by the middle and upper class. The great majority of occupations, especially those performed by the lower socioeconomic class, are virtually unmentioned in the school. Specific preparation for careers which emphasize these latter occupations is turned over to employers and to proprietary schools, where those least able to pay must pay either in reduced earning or in substantial fees. Employers and proprietary schools have important roles to play in occupational preparation, but the rationale for career education suggests that the site and method of financing for occupational preparation should be determined on the basis of efficiency of instruction and on maximization of student (rather than instructor) options.

If this rationale is effective, career education programs, which are designed with it in mind, should be more internally consistent, more geared to increasing student options, more readily accepted by all parts of the community, and more effectively evaluated.


Hoyt , Evans, Mackin, & Mangum. (1972). Career education: What it is and how to do it . Salt Lake City: Olympus Publishing Company.

This article first appeared in the Winter, 1973 issue of the Journal (Vol. 10, No. 2).