After over a week of settling into Mumbai, filling out paperwork and meeting with my guest institution, it’s finally time to get to work. That also happens to be the theme of my research here- how to best get students ready for the workforce.
Workforce readiness comes through many different pathways, both here in India and in the US. Advanced degrees from top universities had been the focus in both countries’ education policies for the last few decades, as it was thought that jobs requiring advanced degrees would be most in demand and provide the workforce with the kind of skills needed to move the countries forward. A lot of resources were thrown in that direction, and it seemed to be working. Between 2002 and 2012, the enrollment at degree-granting institutions in the US increased 24% and in India, during the same time period, it almost doubled. Many parents still see a college diploma as the best trajectory for their child’s future, regardless of whether they have a career choice in mind when they start.
Vocational education, which is now called Career and Technical Education (CTE) in the US, is still viewed as an alternative track to university studies. In the US, it’s often viewed as second-tier and sadly, second-class. As a CTE educator for the past 12+ years, I’ve heard the phrase about how “not every kid is college material,” one too many times. I’d like to keep a laminated copy of ongoing data that shows more than 75% of students enrolled in a CTE program go on to college after completing high school, because even though vocational education has changed in the past 50 years in the US, how it is viewed has not.
The rise of the boomerang kid and the fact that many companies had long-standing job vacancies they couldn’t fill with skilled workers, even while US unemployment statistics were at their highest, strongly suggests that the push for all kids to earn a college degree wasn’t quite the panacea it was thought to be in the US. At the same time, the sort of CTE programming offered in many schools, like my own in Colorado, have been slow to change from the 1950’s model of automotive and cosmetology to newer, more in-demand industries that have a higher education pipeline like computer programming and health-related fields. How then, do we best prepare students for a 21st-century workforce with an ever-changing skill-set?
One thing I hope to explore while here in India, is the role that industry and businesses play in helping to address the skills gap between what graduates leave school with and what companies are searching for in new employees. Initial research supports similar data collected in the US from the Society for Human Resource Management, that the top skills employers are looking for aren’t tied directly to technical training OR skills developed through a degree-granting program, but what are traditionally referred to as “soft” skills, such a problem-solving, work ethic and critical thinking. While all of these skills are hopefully embedded in most lessons in every classroom, it is easy to see their application to the workforce in a CTE classroom.
How, then, do we best provide this type of instruction?
One key finding that is starting to emerge from investigating India’s newly revised scheme of Vocationalisation of Secondary and Higher Secondary Education, is the partnerships between industry and the classroom. Out of necessity, many industry leaders have recently helped to design curriculum, create infrastructure and create joint projects for technical programs here in India. In the US, all CTE programs require an advisory board comprised mainly of industry leaders to help advise on major decisions such as curriculum approval and often volunteer their time to help judge competitions or practice interviews, but stop short of actually involving students directly with their companies through job shadows or internships.
Perhaps it’s time for that to change.
By thinking of these “soft” skills as “professional” skills, which they are, we can begin to carve out more time for them in our lesson planning. By involving industry members more directly, we can also have these skills taught by the “experts” who would eventually be hiring our students as professionals. More importantly, simply exposing our students to the world of work, they stand a greater chance of finding their passion and a place for themselves in the future workforce that will guide their educational decisions, both in high school and in post-secondary education choices.
I look forward to seeing what that looks like here, and what I can bring back with me when I return home.