What is the ultimate rationale of an education?
It depends a lot on who you ask.
Many parents might say it’s about recognizing the whole child and helping them develop to their greatest potential. Most schools have vision statements around creating engaged, lifelong learners. Voters may feel it’s about developing an informed and literate democracy. Politicians are pretty sure it’s the way to make this country better. What do businesses think?
If they’re smart, they realize it’s the only way they’re going to get a skilled and competent workforce. If they’re really smart, then they’re asking themselves how they can get involved.
The idea that there is a “skills gap” between the jobs that are available and the unemployed lining up to fill them was a popular image coming out of the Great Recession, and it’s not completely wrong. The focus on sending more kids to college in the past decade has lead to an increase of almost 25% in enrollment. At the same time, unemployment statistics spiked in 2009 while more than 40% of businesses surveyed had open positions they had trouble filling. In many industries, such as manufacturing, technology and health care, the widening skills gap for middle-level and high-level positions has a measurable economic impact on the assets of a company. The immeasurable impacts on individuals who have gone through the system, particularly those who have swallowed the Kool-Aid of higher education and still find themselves unemployable, is harder to measure.
So why aren’t we graduating more employable kids?
Perhaps the answer lies in the disconnect between education and industry. What companies need in their boardroom, build sites and circuit boards, they need to be willing to bring to the classroom.
Partnerships between businesses and classrooms have had a long history in public education but have failed to keep up with the changing needs of our workforce and our developing concept of the role education plays in the lives of an individual. Cartoons characterizing the similarities between a factory floor and classroom bell schedule are disturbing to a 21st-century learner but fail to address the reality that factory jobs were a pathway to success in the 20th century. Successful partnerships for our increasingly globalized workforce will be ones that foster skills that are in demand now (and more so in the future) in almost all industries: collaboration, innovation, and critical thinking.
In his book, Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs, Peter Cappelli, a professor at the Wharton Management Department, makes a case that the “skills” found lacking by major employers aren’t necessarily technical know-how or academics. Essential “character” skills, such as motivation, communication and accountability tend to top the wish list of employers seeking candidates. How we teach these skills in the classroom matter, but they will matter even more on the job. If both schools and industry have a vested interest in post-secondary workforce readiness, there are things they could be accomplishing together.
Internships, joint projects, guest speakers and professional development opportunities are all ways that companies can connect with classrooms in their communities. Bring your employees over to teach a day of coding. Drop off a view pieces of equipment and spend an afternoon showing the robotics club how to use it. Sponsor a competition on site that allows kids to innovate a product for your customers. Allow them to see a professional environment, develop professional relationships and give real-world applications to what they are learning in schools. On that note, invite teachers to tour your facility. Visit the classroom, observe, ask and offer support if possible. There are things you will learn from them, too, about motivating staff, developing skills and management on a whole new level.
Chambers of Commerce and Boards of Education need to know one another. If they could spend some time sitting at each other’s meetings, they would recognize similar goals and perhaps support each other working towards them. How can we prepare students for jobs that exist now, or will exist in ten years, if we don’t know what they are and what skills they require? Career fairs are more effective than you think, as are mentorships between industry leaders and students.
Career and Technical Education courses should be a part of every student’s transcript and advisory boards made up of local businesses can help guide course offerings. Admittedly, the focus on sending every kid to college has taken its toll on workforce development through traditional means such as vocational education and apprenticeships. While nationally and globally the image of skills training through career and technical education (CTE) has shifted from one of last resort to top priority, most parents eschew these courses in favor of AP classes- even though many high schools offer free college credit for CTE courses. What a great way for kids to explore potential career clusters while learning valuable skills that immediately translate to résumé lines. Additionally, current research examining the earning potential of graduates from trade and technical schools is encouraging. Perhaps most convincing is the pipeline created for students who take CTE courses in high school as part of a pathway towards employment that includes higher education. Imagine going to college knowing what you’d like to major in and what that degree will mean in your career path. Imagine getting an employee that comes to your company with a genuine interest in your field.
It’s scary bringing strangers into a classroom.
It’s certainly not easy nowadays.
Less time and less freedom in the curriculum can make these partnerships hard to fit into a one-size-fits-all model left over from our factory days. So too, is the challenge of keeping kids safe in a classroom while still managing to keep doors open to community.
A slight fear of the education-industrial complex that could arise from the ashes of failed education reform is also rational. Fair enough. Policies ripe for profiteering pushed out by a politburo that hasn’t set foot in a classroom is a reasonable concern. Keeping business and industry out of the classroom, however, is not a reasonable reaction. Industry should not be a stranger in our schools. It should be our number one advocate. After all, these are your future employees.