Lisa Katz| Crain’s Detroit Blog

Some time ago, talent headlines were abuzz about a Florida school board member who took his state’s standardized tests and failed miserably. Many others have since followed suit, from educators to corporate executives, often with similar embarrassing results. Those stories placed a great deal of emphasis on the pros and cons of standardized testing, and today we are spending enormous amounts of time focusing on the Common Core Curriculum.

While I am an advocate for education in all its forms (early education, higher education, continuous education, you name it), I cringe at what I see is missing from academic learning and the education debate altogether:

How do any of the most hotly debated reform efforts actually help prepare young people for jobs?

Many champions suggest that various reform efforts will help workers get ready for college, which is the education level most (and increasingly) required for some of Southeast Michigan’s hottest jobs. That’s a good point, but I spend a lot of time talking with companies that complain that even college graduates are ill-prepared for the workforce. This concern was underscored in December 2012 McKinsey & Company study, which found that:

  • 42 percent of employers believe new graduates are adequately prepared by their colleges or other pre-employment training programs.
  • 45 percent of new graduates think they are prepared for their jobs.

Similarly, the 2012 IBM Tech Trends Study of educators found that more than 80 percent see a moderate to major gap in their institutions’ abilities to meet skills needs in mobile computing, business analytics, cloud computing and social business.

Employers, academic institutions and students themselves are in apparent agreement that much of the education they receive does not make them ready to enter the world of work, regardless of testing and other requirements. The funny thing is that employers do not seem to really care about test results unless they are going through the process of site selection. Looking at online job postings from the last year, only 15 out of more than 300,000 asked for test scores, and these were primarily for instructors to prepare students for standardized tests (e.g., SAT/ACT, GRE, MCAT, etc.). There was, however, a tremendous amount of emphasis on potential job candidates’ skills and experience.

Across all jobs posted online in Southeast Michigan in the last year that specified desired experience, fewer than 10 percent asked for candidates with less than one year’s work history. Looking at postings that specifically request a four-year degree, fewer than 4 percent are searching for candidates with less than a year’s experience. This means that without some real exposure to work, new graduates — including those with a four-year degree — will continue to struggle to find a job. This is true even if they ace their standardized tests. In a state continually called out for its high unemployment, why is there so little discussion around the need for education that integrates real-world, hands-on exposure to careers?

What’s more, rigorous evaluative research has found that some of the best programs helping students achieve academically (and economically) actually combine education and work experience. This includes job shadowing, career awareness and preparation programs, job-contextualized learning, cooperative learning programs, career and technical education, apprenticeships, internships, etc. Fortunately, many of these initiatives exist in Southeast Michigan, but there is need for a more deliberate, aligned approach in many areas.

Federal policymakers are beginning to pay attention to the linkage between education and career outcomes. Initiatives like the Gainful Employment Act require nondegree vocational programs to prepare students for “gainful employment in a recognized occupation.” This move reflects the value that education, whether secondary or post-secondary, should play an important role in helping prepare students for the world of work.

With a heavy emphasis on testing and core standards, many of our current approaches to education and education reform are not taking this fundamental outcome into account. It is time to consider how we change this dialogue in Michigan. Until we do, one of the ultimate outcomes that we seek from so much effort around improving education — namely a prepared workforce that can attract and sustain jobs — will remain elusive.

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