Career Readiness: What does it really mean and how do we get there?

Teacher helping two students build a robotic arm in their design and technology lessonSchool systems across the country are being pushed to re-think their approach to Career Technical Education (CTE) and what it means to be “career-ready.” Job markets are continually changing, and it’s become more critical than ever that secondary students are prepared for college and career upon graduation. While many educators have equated career readiness to college readiness, others have begun to take a more nuanced approach, understanding that not all careers—like students—fit the same mold (Conley & McGaughy, 2012; DeWitt, 2012).

In 2015, ACT refined its definitions of the types of academic skills required for work: Work readiness skills are the academic skills required of all students to be prepared for the workplace; career readiness skills are those particular academic skills needed to work in a given industry; and job readiness skills are the particular academic skills needed for a specific job.

At McREL, our review of CTE-related certifications, standards, curriculum documents, and textbooks in nearly a dozen industries and career pathways has confirmed that the academic content required by various industries and jobs can differ greatly.

While conducting alignment studies between CTE content and academic standards in math, science, and language arts, we found that, while a few academic skills are required by most careers, many needed academic skills are specific to an industry or job position. In some ways, this finding is not terribly surprising. It is easy to recognize that, for example, a career in nursing requires far more knowledge of biology than does a career in plumbing. Yet, both nurses and plumbers use measuring tools and solve complex problems. And, further, the type of biology knowledge needed to begin a career differs significantly between optometry and dentistry.

While different career paths require many different skills, some academic content is fundamental to working in most, if not all, industries. Across industries, technical vocabulary and workplace jargon (what the Common Core calls “domain-specific” words) are key to understanding technical content and being able to communicate effectively with colleagues. In math, many jobs require students to apply business math, measure, and work with decimals, fractions, and percentages.

While academic skills such as learning vocabulary and measuring may not be among the most rigorous identified by college- and career-ready standards, when students apply these basic academic understandings and skills to workplace situations, the task difficulty level can increase significantly. The depth of understanding required to solve real-world problems or make contextual decisions increases as students draw on learned knowledge and skills. For example, it may not be difficult for a culinary student to measure ingredients while following the steps in a written recipe, but adjusting or adapting that recipe will demand a deeper understanding of how to divide fractions, as well as understand how the proportion among ingredients interacts with temperature and other elements of cooking to create a delicious dish. Many educators and organizations have identified the importance of these critical thinking skills in the workplace (For more on this, refer to the additional resources at the end of this post).

The good news is that the ability to think critically and problem solve in real-world contexts is not only highly valued by employers, but is also an effective way to motivate and engage all students. Captivated learners enjoy working toward tangible goals by creating real products and delivering services. Additionally, McREL’s research-supported model of effective school systems finds student curiosity central to meeting high expectations for student learning, as illustrated in our most recent whitepaper, The Road Less Traveled.

Ultimately, as career training programs and academic education systems work together to prepare students for their future careers, it’s important that we acknowledge the differences among learning benchmarks that mark a variety of career pathways. While a solid foundation of academic skills will pave the way for students to enter a variety of career fields, it’s also vitally important that we recognize students’ ambitions and design learning opportunities that engage them in rigorous ways with content relevant to their career goals. If we design programs that address academic skills within real-world projects and learning opportunities, not only will we better prepare our students for their future careers, but we will also motivate them to learn more. For now, this might be the road less traveled but, in the long run, what we really want is for students to get the most mileage possible from their education, regardless of which road they take.

Additional Resources

ACTE. (2010).   What is “Career Ready”? Association for Career and Technical Education: Alexandria, VA. Available from

Conley, D. T. (2012). A complete definition of college and career readiness. Educational Policy Improvement Center: Eugene, OR.  Available from

Mattern, K.; Burrus, J.; Camara, W.; O’Connor, R.; Hanson, M.A., Gambrell, J.; Casillas, A.; & Bobek, B. (2014). Broadening the Definition of College and Career Readiness: A Holistic Approach. ACT Research Report Series. Iowa City, IA. Available from


Conley, D. T., & McGaughy, C. (2012). College and career readiness: Same or different? Educational Leadership, 69(7), 28. Retrieved from

DeWitt, S. (2012). Career readiness: Has its time finally come? Techniques: Connecting Education and Careers (J3), 87(3), 16-19. Retrieved from

SusanRyan_2014_webMcREL consultant Susan Ryan conducts curriculum alignment reviews, and develops/revises academic content standards in language arts, social studies, and career and technical education areas for districts, state agencies, and other organizations. Prior to joining McREL, she was a high school language arts teacher.

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