Lisa Katz| Crain’s Detroit Blog

I recently attended a meeting of academic leaders and asked them to explain to me the mission of education.  One of the responses was, “To promote strong thinking and analytical skills.”

I asked why.

“So kids can be ready for college.”

I asked why kids should go to college.

What I heard was crickets.  What I wanted to hear was, “So they can get a job.”  There was a sense that education was meant to prepare kids for more learning education, which is noble, but few seemed to feel the mission extended beyond that.  In fact, there was a lot of reluctance and discomfort in the room when I pressed on this.  Why is getting kids ready for college OK, but getting them ready for a career is not? Aren’t these two things really the same thing?

Learning in the classroom is not enough.  How fortunate we are to live in a community that values education more than ever.  But parents and students do not choose to become burdened with debt solely for the sake of learning in college:  it is clear that employers are demanding higher levels of educational achievement, particularly a bachelor’s degree, and many are weeding candidates out based on this credential.  People are spending money on college degrees because they hope the investment will pay off later on in a good job.  Unfortunately, in most cases, not even a college degree is enough to win over today’s choosy employers.

  • A 2012 WIN analysis found that only 10 percent of employers are posting jobs seeking candidates with a year of experience or less.  Looking at only those opportunities requesting a bachelor’s degree, the percentage falls to 4 percent.
  • A 2012 McKinsey & Company study found that only 42 percent of employers believe new graduates are adequately prepared by their colleges or other pre-employment training programs. Meanwhile, 45 percent of new graduates think they are prepared for their jobs.

The dilemma is that, even if academia emphasized career awareness and readiness (with postsecondary attainment as an element of the strategy and not the sole focus of the strategy), there still are not enough opportunities for kids to gain real work experience and skills. Older workers are waiting longer to retire, and many who have retired or been displaced from work are supplementing incomes with entry-level positions traditionally held by youth.  The result is that the Detroit metro area has the third highest youth unemployment rate among the nation’s large metropolitan areas, and young people are failing to gain critical early career experience.

At the same time, employers are reluctant to participate in internships and apprenticeships because of the associated costs, demands on time, legal responsibilities, etc.

Of course, there are other ways to help give kids exposure to careers (e.g., mentoring, job shadowing, etc.), but our systems are poorly organized and resourced to accomplish this.  As a result, we lack strategies for helping employers “get their feet wet” when it comes to youth engagement, including experiences that closely mirror the world of work.

Further, resources for programs that do systematically give kids real work skills and experiences, like career and technical education programs, are facing unprecedented challenges, including reduced funding, declining enrollments, and lack of formal alignment with post-secondary learning programs.  These outcomes stem from the faulty perception that CTE is “not for the college bound.”  The reality is that CTE should be a track for all students, including the college bound, who may face a tougher time getting a job without real experience than those kids directly entering the job market.

The good news is that we can change this.  There are strategies that can help kids become more familiar with high-demand careers and gain actual experience as they traverse their education, no matter how far they go.  One example is to revise our approach to education development plans (EDPs), which students undertake in middle school but often fail to deliberately revisit throughout high school, including the critical 10th and 11th grades when kids are seriously planning for college and career.  EDPs ask kids to assess their interests and explore careers that relate.

Meanwhile, in North Carolina, a program called Futures for Kids takes this whole process a step further and connects young people to a series of relationships with employers throughout their entire education process, including the full spectrum of online career coaching and site visits to mentoring and internships.    (In Boston, every high school has a corporate sponsor that undertakes similar activities.)   Students in the program have undergone statistically significant increases in end-of-grade and end-of-year test scores, which is helpful regardless of whether one is college bound.

In other places, there is strong support for career and technical education, not only from a funding standpoint, but also from a clear alignment with post-secondary education.  CTE in Michigan should be for both the college and non-college bound.  Students who graduate from CTE can earn valuable credentials that employers demand and college credit.  Plus, there are numerous cases where skilled CTE graduates were able to work while attending college, graduating with low (and even no) debt burden as a result.

Fundamentally, we need to think differently about the college and career divide.  We need to overcome the perspective that a student is either on the college or career track, and we need to acknowledge that the reason we care about kids going to college is because we want them to get better jobs.  Career awareness and readiness should be a fully integrated element of the school-based mission.  Achieving this benefits both our students and employers and serves our communities along the way.

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