For kids sitting in a classroom, school can sometimes seem like a pointless form of torture—memorizing dull history facts or arcane math formulas. Almost all kids have groaned at some point, “What does this have to do with my life?”
In past decades, the answer to that question often didn’t emerge until kids left high school or even college, when they learned too late how all those bits of knowledge could come in handy in the workplace. But this is a different era, when educational technology is bringing career awareness to school kids—and even to pre-schoolers.
Edtech has produced a bounty of digital learning opportunities for people who already know where they’re headed, from code schools to online Ivy League classes in art history. Now companies such as Burlingame, CA-based PathSource are trying to fill a need among students and adults who are still uncertain about their goals, and want to research their career and educational options. One possible payoff of understanding where knowledge can take them in the real world: greater motivation in the classroom.
Parents with children as young as four can start familiarizing them with the work world through free apps such as “What is My Job?” from Paka Preschool Products. For kids who have started school, companies like PathSource; Asheville, NC-based VirtualJobShadow; and Salt Lake City, UT-based Graduation Alliance have developed questionnaires, games, videos, and other resources to show students the connections between their school achievements and their opportunities in the job market. Some school districts are using these services to incorporate career awareness into middle school and high school curricula.
The potential market reaches well beyond school kids—to young adults without a high school diploma as well as older people who feel they’re on the wrong track at work. For anyone seeking a career direction, PathSource offers a free mobile app designed to draw users into the career exploration odyssey, whether their main motivation is to get ahead financially, to spend their lives doing work they love, or to balance those two goals.
PathSource CEO Aaron Michel, who founded the company in 2011 with COO Alex Li, said the app is a way to spare young people from making the kind of disastrous career move he almost made.
Michel designed his own college major at Boston University in environmental policy, politics, and law—which would have been perfect for someone who wanted to be a lawyer. Michel got into law school, and the of practice environmental law appealed to him. But he figured he’d have to move into corporate law eventually to make a reasonable income. So he decided to do an internship in a corporate law office before starting law school.
“Within two weeks, tops, it was abundantly clear that I would have been miserable and bad at the job,” Michel says. “If this can happen to me, I bet it can happen to a lot of other people.”
Michel went to Harvard Business School instead, and later found a like-minded business partner in Li, a U.C. Davis graduate and budding entrepreneur. Li had seen some of his young friends struggling to start their careers, and wanted to create solutions.
One of the entry points for career exploration on PathSource’s free mobile app is a quick assessment test that identifies the primary interests that are key to a student’s search for the right choice of occupations. Another way in is to follow the money—the app’s income calculator reveals to kids what annual salary they’d need in order to afford the kind of home they want—with the car and other stuff they’d want—in the town where they want to live. With that benchmark in mind, they can then look at average salaries in the professions that interest them. A youngster who has never paid monthly household bills before might start re-thinking a career as a freelance guitarist.
Not that PathSource tries to funnel all users into the standard routes commonly defined as career success—college, professional school, and then a life in fields like business, law, medicine, engineering, and academia. The app features more than 3,000 video interviews with people who talk about what their jobs are like, and while these include plenty of lawyers and doctors, they also include prep cooks, paralegals, park maintenance workers, massage therapists, dental assistants, and a police department community liaison.
Adults who are studying for a high school equivalency credential can now use PathSource resources tailored for them under the company’s recently announced partnership with GED Testing Service. That Washington, DC-based outfit not only administers the widely accepted GED test, but also offers test prep resources, information about adult education classes, and career information through its MyGED feature. More than 1.4 million users have MyGED accounts, where students can now tap into PathSource. PathSource is working with GED Testing Service to help students set their career goals and guide them toward further educational or training opportunities to pursue soon after they pass the GED test. The Richmond, CA adult education center is one of the organizations whose students use the resources PathSource developed for MyGED.
Michel says PathSource helps GED students find college options, but also points them to vocational training and online learning. These options are becoming much more robust, he says.
“There’s this whole new world that’s been exploding in the past several years,” Michel says.
Meanwhile, PathSource has been exploring several routes toward a sustainable business model, focusing on its free mobile app. The startup’s initial plan was to sell its services to schools and school districts. It lined up customers including the San Francisco Unified School District and the Chicago Public Schools.
PathSource developed tools for K-12 teachers who want to conduct semester-long classes in 21st Century job skills such as time management, networking, career exploration, and education planning. To keep students engaged, the company offers interactive games and assignments along with questionnaires for them to fill out after viewing video interviews about jobs that interest them. The Web platform includes dashboards for students, teachers, and school administrators. VirtualJobShadow, and Graduation Alliance have created similar systems for schools and school districts.
While PathSource’s small staff was inspired by the impact of its programs on students’ lives, Michel says selling into K-12 schools was a tough slog. Like other edtech companies, PathSource faced slow decision-making processes for school purchases. And the potential revenues weren’t very rewarding, except at very large school districts, he says. PathSource no longer actively seeks new K-12 school customers, though it supports its continuing clients.
For colleges and universities, the startup offers a no-cost deal for the app, rather than curriculum tools. Their students receive free, full access to the PathSource app—branded with the school’s name—if the college promotes the app through its website, career fairs, social media channels, and other means. College students also get access to the PathSource job board and job search tools.
Over the past year, PathSource has been exploring various forms of monetizing its free mobile app and. College students using the app see a “a limited amount of advertising for services that we think are relevant for them,” Michel says.
Although most of the app’s resources are available free, enhanced features such as extended video interviews are available to buy through the app. But PathSource doesn’t want to raise many paywalls for individual users.
“Generally, we are trying to avoid building the business on the backs of our users. Instead, we charge the institutions and companies that want to connect with our users,” Michel says.
The company is evolving into a matchmaker between the app’s users and online learning providers, as well as potential employers, Michel says. Revenues would come to PathSource for making successful referrals.
This practice is known as “lead generation,” and Michel acknowledges that it has a dodgy history in the online education field. It’s been associated with for-profit learning companies that have low graduation rates, such as the University of Phoenix, and the Corinthian Colleges, which closed its dozens of campuses this year after government probes.
PathSource doesn’t refer students to such providers, Michel says. Instead, it links them to a curated selection of the best options in online education from sources such as Udacity and U.C. Berkeley, he says. The startup is in the process of refining its methods of assessing digital learning programs. The standards will include factors like employer recognition of the value of course content.
In January, PathSource will start charging employers a $99 fee for posting a job listing that can stay on the startup’s job board for a year while the company takes in resumes. Other job boards charge substantially higher fees, Michel says. On PathSource’s career pages, employers will also be able to display branded photos to build their name recognition with young job-seekers.
PathSource is keeping its staff lean at 15 employees. It has raised $1.4 million from foundations, angel investors and venture firms. Its backers include Ironfire Capital, the Yat Sen Foundation, and Wasabi Ventures.
By early January, the company expects to release a new version of its app, which will include a resume builder. PathSource also has a standalone resume builder app awaiting approval by Apple.
Although government agencies such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics offer valuable information for career exploration, Michel says there’s an open niche for edtech companies that can make the user interface much more accessible to young people. The need for career guidance is greater than ever for students these days, he says. For a long time, schools haven’t been able to afford enough guidance counselors, and college career centers are often underfunded. On top of that, young people today face mounting college costs and a job market with fast-changing requirements for technology skills and networking savvy.
While in past decades, an undergraduate degree from a good college was often a ticket into the middle class, now many graduates are not only struggling to find work but are also burdened with college debt. The choice of a college, a major, and a career goal are now “major life-changing decisions” for students. But too often, they hinge on insignificant factors, Michel says.
“They’re making these decisions based on fluff,” Michel says.