13 min read

Career Navigation for Future Talent

If you are or were ever a student, you might relate to this description of what routinely happens in school from Gorick Ng, author of The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right:

“Much of school is about bubbling bubbles, or filling in the blanks, or really conforming to highly structured environments where the syllabus will tell you what’s coming up. Instructions are nicely laid out.”

If you’re working now, or if you’ve ever looked for a job or spent time figuring out what career is right for you, you know that the journey from learning to working isn’t always “nicely laid out.” In fact, it can be ambiguous, unstructured, and complex. To complete the trek successfully, you have to engage in a good deal of what’s often called career navigation.

Welcome to the third episode of the Horizons podcast, where host Tameshia Bridges Mansfield shares insights from Ng and other experts about effective career navigation for young people—our country’s future talent.


While Ng focuses on the unspoken rules about getting into and succeeding in college and then finding a job and succeeding at work, workforce development experts Suzan LeVine and Mary Alice McCarthy explore the opportunities and challenges of youth apprenticeship. It’s a proven learn-and-earn training model that helps participants build a career mindset, but they note that U.S. youth apprenticeship programs would benefit from more policy support and more business and industry partnerships.


Finally, we hear from David Coleman, the CEO of the College Board, who talks about rethinking the impact of the SATs.


There are, of course, many options for learning, work, and the pathways one can choose en route to a rewarding career. Navigating that road can be bumpy for some and smooth for others. Listen to the third episode of the Horizons podcast to hear how systemic changes can lead to better career navigation for everyone—on both ends of the process.


Tameshia: Hi, I’m Tameshia Bridges Mansfield, vice president for workforce innovation at Jobs for the Future, also known as JFF. And this is Horizons. In this special podcast series we’ll share the best and brightest highlights from JFF’s annual Horizons summit, a national gathering of influencers dedicated to reimagining the future of learning and work, and leaving the past where it belongs, behind us.

We’ll hear from a diverse range of experts, many with unconventional points of view representing private industry, government, philanthropy, nonprofits, and educational institutions focused on aligning people, places, and systems to drive economic advancement for all.

As the world continues to change at a rapid pace, the job market is changing, too. And with these changes comes the need for educational institutions and other nontraditional talent pipelines to keep up with the seemingly constant growth and evolution. As it stands now, many young people are still facing several challenges when it comes to building a successful career or choosing the right path to begin with. In addition to policy changes and increased investment, there is a need for a more cohesive journey from educational institutions to the workforce and more structures designed to support individuals in their path to success, every step of the way. You might know it as career navigation.

In this episode, we’ll hear clips from three different Horizons 2021 discussions about what’s still standing in the way of career success for many people and how we can help to streamline the process. During the 2021 Horizons conference, Clare Bertrand, a director at JFFLabs, and Gorick Ng, the author of The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right, sat down to discuss the concept of career navigation and the barriers standing in the way of carving a successful path for youth who have not received equitable opportunities from the public or private sectors. Gorick shared his theory about the main ingredients that go into a high performer at work, conveying the idea of the three C’s: confidence, commitment, and compatibility.

Gorick: So, over the course of over 500 interviews with professionals across geographies, industries, and job types, I began to understand that there’s actually a universal definition for what makes for a high performer at work, and it’s someone who demonstrates the three C’s of competence, commitment, and compatibility. And the idea is this: When you show up as a professional, whether it’s in an interview, a cover letter, or a resume, and especially on your first day in a new role, the people around you are sizing you up and they’re asking themselves three questions. Question one is Can you do this job well? Which is competence. Question two is Are you excited to be here? Which is commitment. And question three is Do we get along? Which is compatibility. So competence, commitment, compatibility, the three Cs.

Your job, all of our jobs? It’s to convince the people around us to answer yes to all three questions all the time. We can start thinking about this as a Venn diagram where our job is to find our way to the center of those three circles in this Venn diagram. Why? Well, if you aren’t showing competence, people aren’t going to trust you with more important responsibilities. If you’re not flexing your commitment, people may be hesitant to invest in your success at this organization. And if you’re not demonstrating compatibility, then people may not necessarily want to be around you.


In that so-called airport test, you may not pass that airport test with your coworkers. It’s not always fair. It’s not always a level playing field, and not all of us will start off at the same spot in the Venn diagram. Where some people given their identity, given the context that they’re in, they may find themselves already at the center of all three circles, whereas other people, outsiders to the environments that they find themselves in, may find themselves actually fairly far off from that center. However, from an individual’s perspective, there’s really an onus on the individual to try and navigate one’s way into the center. And it also raises questions on a systemic level around are we creating a sufficiently level playing field for people to find themselves at the center?

Tameshia: As Gorick mentioned, the theory of the three C’s exposes flaws in the current system. There are still several barriers standing in the way of a successful career for people from under-resourced urban or rural communities or those whose identities are marginalized, such as LGBTQ, female identifying, or living with a disability. And it’s the role of educational institutions, government, and the workforce to collaborate and remove these barriers and biases going forward. Clare elaborated on some of these barriers and how they might prevent people from demonstrating the three C’s to a potential employer.

Clare: And we also know that lower-resource schools may have a higher student to counselor ratio. They may not have as many connections or internship opportunities for young people to build professional skills. So you may have that barrier and that gap may be even further between what school looks like and what work looks like. And then if we look at compatibility, sort of, do you get along with us? Right?

So I think compatibility really opens up the idea of the fact that sometimes we’ve got implicit bias happening in the workplace. We’ve got structural inequities built into institutions and systems such as racism, ableism, sexism. So those things can be barriers to sort of feelings of compatibility within the workplace as well as commitment. Are you excited to be here?

So I think sometimes there’s a lack of social supports for learners and workers, or we know there is, and which can actually help, it can question the commitment of others or some people versus others, I should say. And I think we can even just look at the example of women, right? The United States, I think, is the only developed country that doesn’t have a national policy on maternity leave. Women can sometimes be the caregivers. And also, if you are in retail or in the service industry, you can have an unpredictable schedule so you can’t really manage day care. So there are ways that things can look like you’re not committed or there are barriers in place to make you look sort of uncommitted to a workplace when really you’re just struggling because you don’t have the supports in place to be successful.

So individuals have the agency to take Gorick’s guidance and run with it. But we do need to build better systems for more equitable opportunities.

Tameshia: To help create these equitable opportunities, Clare suggests that governments provide guidance, technical assistance, and funding to high schools and colleges so that every student has a chance to develop a career plan prior to graduation. She recommends using state resources to expand the use of tech-enabled career navigation tools in education and workforce settings and increase the capacity of career counselors to prep youth for success going forward. Gorick finished the session by pointing out the gaps that are still prevalent between the education system and the workforce, and why there should be more of an emphasis on navigational skills in educational environments, whether traditional or nontraditional.

Gorick: I think one of the concepts that is often overlooked, not in this session, but in general, are these navigational skills. Whereas I think about what we’re taught in school, whether it’s for up to 12 years or 16 years or beyond, so much of school is about bubbling bubbles, or filling in the blanks, or really conforming to highly structured environments where the syllabus will tell you what’s coming up. Instructions are nicely laid out. The expectations are nicely written down for you explicitly.

However, when that transition from school to work occurs, whether as an intern, co-op, apprentice, et cetera, all of a sudden, you’re dealing with ambiguity, and our system of education today really doesn’t set people up very well to navigate this form of ambiguity. So as I think about what we can do for individuals, it’s to instill so many more of these navigational skills while at the same time for institutions, for folks who are in a position of influence and power. It’s really about recognizing that these unspoken rules exist. They do exist whether you choose to recognize them or not. And once you do recognize them, then the onus is on our systems builders to be able to level the playing field for all. That’s my hope.

Tameshia: In our next segment, we’ll hear clips from a panel discussion featuring Suzan LeVine, the former principal deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Labor, and Mary Alice McCarthy, the director of the Center on Education & Labor at New America. The panel kicked off with Suzan sharing her perspective on the importance of instilling a career mindset in students from a young age. Susan previously served as an ambassador to Switzerland, where she was exposed to a different perspective on preparing young people for successful careers. She brought these ideas back to the U.S. to help the country view apprenticeship not as an alternative pathway, but as an additional one.

Suzan: When I served as U.S. ambassador of Switzerland and Liechtenstein, I can’t forget little Liechtenstein, those countries embrace it so deeply, and I think as people often think of those countries, they think about incredibly successful economic powerhouses that punch far above their weight, and that is true, but what they don’t realize is that 70 percent, that’s seven-zero percent, of young people do apprenticeship, not high school, but that that culture of career actually starts in the seventh grade when young people start to do career fairs, the eighth grade they do little career explorations, the ninth grade they apply, the 10th grade they start in their apprenticeships that are three-to-four-year apprenticeships.

When I had the opportunity to serve in 2014, I saw the system there. And my time at Microsoft, I’d been involved in efforts to look at 21st century skills and how you evaluate those. And as a result, I was able to see when I witnessed what they were doing in apprenticeship, the ultimate delivery of 21st century skills. And that plus a paycheck was really profound, and I worked very hard and diligently with Swiss employers to bring those apprenticeship models back to their U.S. facilities. And that dovetailed with the administration’s efforts to invest in this not as an alternative pathway, but has an additional pathway and an equal pathway.

Those investments have been so effective since 2014, basically, and thanks to you and others who are working in the Department of Labor at the time in order to seed youth apprenticeship all across the United States, from South Carolina, to Washington, to Colorado, to Wisconsin, to Connecticut, to Rhode Island—all across the United States, we have worked very hard over the past many years and including on a bipartisan basis to expand apprenticeship to include youth apprenticeship and to expand it to new and different areas. So it’s amazing that the trades have been able to steward apprenticeship for decades now and keep it humming and running since the 1937 passage of the first National Apprenticeship Act. And now it’s an opportunity to build on their work and expand and grow it.

Tameshia: Although the U.S. is beginning to see the value in apprenticeship programs, Mary Alice pointed out that there are still several challenges standing in the way of their implementation.

Mary Alice: We just sort of lack of policy infrastructure for youth apprenticeship. Frankly, we lack a strong enough policy infrastructure for apprenticeship in general outside of the specific set of occupations in which it is flourished, the construction trades.

So I think the work that has really gotten underway since 2016 has been both a combination of investments and sort of building the capacity of local communities and states that support apprenticeship and then the policy infrastructure that’s needed to do that. One of the things that I think is really important to keep in mind is that there’s no lack of enthusiasm for apprenticeship really, anytime you talk to people about it, you get them excited about it. They want this for their communities. They particularly want it for their young people, just because we’ve created such a such sort of harsh system, kind of zero-sum system where getting into a family sustaining career is this walking a tightrope of higher education that’s very risky.

So we have a lot of enthusiasm, but the enthusiasm, even the most enthusiastic communities are going to hit some structural barriers when it comes to actually establishing programs.

Tameshia: Mary Alice mentioned the challenges associated with building and nurturing partnerships to strengthen apprenticeship programs, as well as the issue of many industries still requiring a college degree to break into. However, she noted that all of these problems are ultimately solvable. They will just require some policy adjustment and additional investment. In our third segment, we’ll hear excerpts from a Horizons discussion called Strengthening Connections From High School to Postsecondary Education and Work. During the discussion, David Coleman, the CEO of the College Board, said it’s time for the organization to welcome change, rethink the impact of the SATs, and listen to a more diverse set of voices.

David: You know, there’s been a lot of talk about the SAT, probably too much talk, and about the PSAT, and I want to clear our minds from it because I think all that talk is about its role in admissions, and I might return to that, but for a moment I want to think about something totally different about those exams. Those exams reach millions of young people. And what do they say to those students who are, by the time they reach high school, likely not ready for a four-year degree? And certainly when they take the exams, they receive scores that show that they are not yet ready, likely ready, for a four-year degree, for a four-year program.

And when I think about identity . . . about what high school looks and feels like to those young people who are told, including by forces like ourselves, repeatedly, You are not ready. And when I, you know, I look over their score reports in that, you know, it does say you can practice on Khan Academy, you can do more, but it offers one model of success and excellence which is attending college, or particularly a four-year program. And we’ve begun to reconsider and reconsider our entire work to challenge ourselves that must not we do far more for high school students, the majority of high school students who are not likely on track for a four-year program? . . .

And it’s interesting because even the SAT itself for students on their way to a four-year college, its actual power is less in ranking students, although that’s what fascinates people, but often for many students who, when they take it in their school, not on a Saturday, many of them who are ready for a four-year college who didn’t think they were or who weren’t planning on it, raise their hands 20 percent more just by doing it. Think about it. And if a college writes back to them, finds their name, it increases their chances of going quite a lot. So the secret power of that moment of taking an exam is not really what it gives you back as a score, but it is if you are seen and particularly if the conversation opens up.

So what if that could be true for those students who are not yet ready for a four-year degree? So what we’re contemplating is a partnership with players like JFF, who assembles us here today, players like Strada, other providers of information, to provide a young person in that situation with terrific local information about credentials that are within their reach, that are within their power, nearby, that they could get to advance their life.

And we’ve begun working on this with a set of tools called Career Finder, where we’ve mapped the PSAT, et cetera, to career opportunities. We ask students in interest inventory, because it’s all about what you love to do, and you know, if you look at it, we’re thinking that a student like, you know, we in our research, a woman who’s leading our work, a woman named Lilly, lives down the road from her, and she got our score report and it said she wasn’t ready and she was discouraged. But she had the frame of mind to look around and find a great dental degree program. She went from being a dental assistant to moving up the ladder.

And why can’t we be partnering with organizations so that we can say to young person, you actually already have what it takes. You may not yet be ready for a four year college, but there’s a terrific community college opportunity right around the corner. There’s a terrific, productive credential you could get. And we’re here to listen and learn as we develop that idea. And some students who go to community college, of course, are ready for a four-year college, but it’s a great first step to them.

Tameshia: The future looks different for every young person. So it only makes sense that we should all be taking a broader look at the multiple paths to career success. David believes that all begins with fostering people’s unique interests and respecting our differences.

David: It’s got to begin with young people’s interests. It’s got to begin with what’s around them and connecting them to it. And I think this is a time for the College Board to listen to a group of voices have been calling on us for some time to have a more diverse view of the colleges we interact with, including a much more vibrant relationship with community colleges and doing much more to create linkages between students and them and productive degree programs, but also other credentialing programs. So I think it’s time for humility, but also to use the full freight of our voice to say we have not adequately served thus far, the students of this country, what we’ve done is not enough. There are students who are in the shadows, the majority of students, and they’ve been betrayed to harm. And it’s time for us to change.

Tameshia: Providing the education, training, and preparation necessary to enter today’s workforce isn’t always an easy task. For many young people, there are still several barriers standing in the way of a smooth transition from an educational setting to a full-time role. We’ll all need to work together to help break those barriers down and build new roads to success and advancement.

Achieving a career-oriented mindset is an important piece of the puzzle for many of today’s youth, which is why educational institutions should place a greater emphasis on helping students cultivate navigational skills from a young age. We also know that policy changes and more funding are needed to accomplish many of these goals, so continuing to speak up and push for improvement will be key to moving forward.

Thanks for listening to the Horizons podcast brought to you by JFF. Together, we’re building a future that works and inspiring others to fight for equality, diversity, and inclusivity everywhere.

Make sure to subscribe, rate and review the podcast and tune in to our next monthly episode. To learn more about Horizons or watch the full sessions featured in today’s episode, visit us online at JFF.org/Horizons.

I’m Tameshia Bridges Mansfield from Jobs for the Future. See you next time.


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