GUEST COLUMN: Why Career Exploration Needs to Start Much Sooner for Students

By Paloma L. Santiago, District Director, Southern Arizona Junior Achievement of Arizona

What did you want to be growing up? 

What was your “dream job,” and did you end up pursuing it?  Did you even know it existed back then?

Chances are that times have changed since you were asking yourself those questions.  Education has transformed immensely over the last several years, and its purpose has changed too.  It’s no longer solely about reading, writing and understanding common core math.  Rather, there’s been a palpable shift in the expectation that Tucson students will be ready to succeed in both life, and the future workforce upon graduation. 

That’s why career exploration needs to be an integral part of a child’s learning journey from the start. It needs to happen earlier. Much earlier.

Career fairs, guest speakers, internships and job shadowing are just a few ways older teens and young adults learn about their career options. They may not realize it, but by waiting until those later years to start career exploration, they’ve already limited their options and potential. Like tunnel vision, they may focus solely on the ideas and opportunities directly in front of them at that time. But what about the ideas that don’t even exist in the Tucson workforce and beyond yet?  

Research shows that exposing children as young as 3 or 4 years old to age-appropriate information about work and finances can help improve academic performance, goal setting and skill development as they get older.  This time period is critical as kids are still forging foundational ideas around things like money and work.  They are also bursting with creativity and imagination, and more open to exploring a wide range of potential careers or possibilities. Plus, with little to no pressure to actually commit, students not only develop a better understanding of the working world, but also their place in it.

As a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization, Junior Achievement of Arizona has witnessed the impact of early career exploration for hundreds of thousands of Southern Arizona students during the last 65 years. Through programs focused on financial literacy, work readiness and entrepreneurship, students connect what they learn in the classroom to the real world and see firsthand how learning correlates to earning.  

The data shows that early exposure works.

  • 4-in-5 alumni report that JA played a role in choosing their career path
  • 53% of JA alumni have started or owned a business
  • Students who experienced JA earn 20% more than the general population
  • JA students graduate at a higher rate than the AZ graduation rate
  • JA students are 54% more likely to have their bachelor’s degree than the general population
  • 74% of JA alumni are homeowners, compared to 66% of general public
  • Early career exploration goes beyond helping students answer that age-old question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  It empowers today’s students to be successful, contributing members of society, which also benefits their families, future employers and the community as a whole.

For more information about Junior Achievement of Arizona and it’s Tucson-area programs, including free at-home resources for parents and students, visit

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