First Steps Towards Employment: Increasing Students’ Career Awareness

NTACT: the Collaborative
5 min readMar 25, 2020


Magen Rooney-Kron, M.Ed., Joshua M. Pulos, M.Ed., BCBA, and the NTACT Knowledge Development Team

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Oklahoma, University of North Carolina at Charlotte

Across the country, students with disabilities aspire to achieve the same post-school employment goals as students without disabilities, including employment opportunities that align with their interests, preferences, and strengths (Zimmer-Gembeck & Mortimer, 2006). Students typically identify their employment interests and preferences during the first stage of career development, also known as career awareness (Brolin, 1997). According to Rowe et al. (2015), career awareness is “learning about opportunities, education, and skills needed in various occupational pathways to choose a career that matches one’s strengths and interests” (p. 118).

It is important for teachers to understand students’ level of career awareness to inform their Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). Although IDEA (2004) does not require students to receive transition services until age 16, students may begin developing career awareness as early as elementary or middle school (Morningstar & Cavenna-Deane, 2018; Papay et al., 2015). It is also important to note that some states across the country begin transition services at age 13 (Suk et al., in press). Furthermore, career awareness has been associated with positive post-school outcomes. Research suggests students who acquire job search skills by participating in career awareness activities are more likely to be employed or enrolled in post-school education after graduation (Mazzotti et al., 2020; Mazzotti et al., 2016; Test et al., 2009).

There are many ways teachers can provide students with opportunities to increase their career awareness (Rowe et al., 2015):

● Provide a broad range of school-wide opportunities for students to systematically learn about various careers. During the school year, provide students with repeated opportunities for learning through career fairs, Career Technical Education (CTE) classes, guest speakers from the community, and on-the-job shadowing.

● During classroom instruction, describe the type of general and job-specific skills required and occupations available within specific core content areas (e.g., an architect is required to understand geometry).

● Use age-appropriate transition assessments to continuously evaluate students’ career awareness (e.g., interest inventories).

● Include students in the analysis of age-appropriate transition assessments results to help them understand their own career preferences and interests.

● When students have identified an interest in a job, provide explicit, systematic instruction on how to attain that job (e.g., job applications).

Take a look at what is happening in some states . . .

SDMyLife — South Dakota

Educators and vocational rehabilitation counselors in South Dakota are using SDMyLife to help students increase their career awareness. SDMyLife is a free online tool available to all students in South Dakota. Students are able to take interest and ability assessments to learn more about themselves. Once they identify their interests and preferences, students explore different career clusters. In addition, SDMyLife provides a variety of resources to help students learn more about career awareness activities available in South Dakota.

For more information about SDMyLife, click here.

Career and Education Explorer — Minnesota

Minnesota’s Career and Education Explorer allows students to explore career data specific to Minnesota. Students are able to explore job titles, wages, current demand, expected openings, and education requirements for a variety of occupations. Students who identify a job that interests them are able to apply for those positions online.

For more information about the Career and Education Explorer, click here.

Project SEARCH — Nationwide

States across the country are providing students with internships through Project SEARCH. During the first few weeks of the internship, students take a variety of assessments to learn about their preferences, interests, strengths, and needs. Vocational rehabilitation counselors then use the assessment data to match students to internships. Over the course of the year-long internship, students learn about themselves and careers available in their community.

For more information about Project SEARCH, click here.

NTACT Resources

Age Appropriate Transition Assessment Toolkit — Provides a comprehensive understanding of transition assessment and includes multiple examples of informal and formal transition assessments

Aligning Evidence-Based Practices and Predictors for Post-School Success — Describes evidence-based practices and identifies additional resources to promote career awareness

Aligning Pre-Employment Transition Services Resource Mapping Tool — Tool to record important stakeholders and their responsibilities related to the provision of pre-employment transition services such as career awareness

Career Awareness Correlated with Improved Education and Employment Outcomes — Describes evidence to support career awareness as a predictor of post-school employment and education

Effective Practices and Predictors of Post-School Success — Describes effective practices related to career awareness

Taxonomy for Transition Programming 2.0 — Provides concrete practices, which have been identified from effective programs and the research literature, for implementing transition education

Transition Fair Toolkit — Assists state and local planning teams in the implementation and evaluation of a transition fair.


Brolin, D. E. (1997). Life centered career education: A competency-based approach (5th ed.). Council for Exceptional Children.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. (2004). Pub. L. 108–446, §1.

Mazzotti, V. L., Rowe, D., Kwiatek, S., Voggt, A., Chang, W., Fowler, C. H., Poppen, M., Sinclair, J., & Test, D. W. (2020). Secondary transition predictors of post-school success: An update for the field. Manuscript under review.

Mazzotti, V. L., Rowe, D. A., Sinclair, J., Poppen, M., Woods, W. E., & Shearer, M. L. (2016). Predictors of post-school success: A systematic review of NLTS2 secondary analyses. Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 39(4), 196–215.

Morningstar, M. E., & Clavenaa-Deane, E. (2018). Your complete guide to transition planning and services. Brookes H. Brookes.

Papay, C., Unger, D. D., Williams-Diehm, K., & Mitchell, V. (2015). Begin with the end in mind: Infusing transition planning and instruction into elementary classrooms. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 47(6), 310–318.

Rowe, D. A., Alverson, C. Y., Unruh, D. K., Fowler, C. H., Kellems, R., & Test, D. W. (2015). A Delphi study to operationalize evidence-based predictors in secondary transition. Career Development and Transition for Exceptional Children, 38(2), 113–126.

Suk, A. L., Martin, J. E., McConnell, A. E., & Biles, T. L. (in press). States decrease the age secondary transition planning must begin. Journal of Disability Policy Studies.

Test, D. W., Mazzotti, V. L., Mustian, A. L., Fowler, C. H., Kortering, L., & Kohler, P. (2009). Evidence-based secondary transition predictors for improving postschool outcomes for students with disabilities. Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 32(3), 160–181.

Zimmer-Gembeck, M. J., & Mortimer, J. T. (2006). Adolescent work, vocational development, and education. Review of Educational Research, 76(4), 537–566.



NTACT: the Collaborative

NTACT:C is a Technical Assistance and Dissemination project, funded by the OSEP and the RSA, Cooperative Agreement Number H326E140004.