Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

The Perfect Storm in the Educational Skills Crisis

May 04, 2012

The perfect storm in America’s educational skills crisis is dangerously near. According to a study from researchers at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Arizona, 40 percent of new high school graduates are unprepared for both traditional college and career training. For a nation that wants to compete in the 21st century global economy—and cares about the success and well-being of its young people—that is unacceptable.

While in the U.S. our current methods of preparing students for college certainly leave room for improvement, the set of problems surrounding the readiness of our students to succeed in the workforce are arguably more severe and complex.

The growing perception that high school is little more than a stepping stone to college has incorrectly sent the message to our students that career and technical skills are simply not important in today’s society, and prevents students from giving real thought to the post-secondary path that’s right for them. Recent data suggests that demand for technical degree holders is skyrocketing, and the wages of these workers is beginning to outpace those holding bachelor’s degrees.

Solving the Problem

An important approach to solving this problem must be a deep collaboration between the business and education communities. Additionally, there is an opportunity for the Association of Career and Technical Education (CTE) to reform career guidance protocols to reflect labor market needs and ensure CTE teachers and professionals are well prepared with on-the-ground industry experience.

 
40 percent of new high school graduates are unprepared for both traditional college and career training. For a nation that wants to compete in the 21st century global economy—and cares about the success and well-being of its young people—that is unacceptable.

The business community, which requires a strong pool of qualified candidates for a wide variety of technical positions, has a unique stake in the success of the U.S. education system, and must be empowered to take action.

I propose several ways to help close the skills gap:

  • Hold community roundtables between local executives and school leaders. These gatherings will not only guide local policy, they will influence federal policy and work to achieve the goal of increasing and sustaining our investments in math and science education.
  • Move the conversation from a local to national level by leveraging national trade organizations and representative organizations like the National Association of Workforce Boards. Securing more proactive involvement from national business community leaders will encourage them to inform the educational community about what jobs and skills are in demand.
  • Offer students more workplace opportunities and internships while they are still in high school and integrate these experiences into the curriculum. Currently, the vast majority of high school students graduate with little or no work experience that has any relation to their career goals. Integrating such relevant work experience into the high school curriculum would allow students to make better-informed decisions about their career and postsecondary education choices.
  • Create and invest in specialized high schools. Health science charter high schools, often funded with donations from the private sector, have proven their ability to produce career-ready graduates and supply the medical industry with valuable young talent. This model might be used, with slight variation, in any number of fields.
  • More broadly, create and invest in programs that address larger business needs, such as extracurricular STEM programs like the FIRST Robotics Competition.
  • Address teachers directly. Companies that invest in teachers’ professional development, such as Intel through its Teach program, can take a leadership role in this arena and can more directly influence the emerging future of education.

While the goals and accountability systems of business and education are not yet aligned, with increased dialogue and collaboration, they can be. We must secure more proactive involvement from the business community and promote the reality that technical careers are in demand. Students who are informed about their choices have the ability to choose freely between future pathways and have the resources they need to ensure the choice they make will be the right one.

Close collaboration and a real, ongoing partnership between education and business must not only continue but accelerate in order to close the broadening skills gap, stimulate global economic growth, and help shape a new system that provides students with the skills and qualities they need to succeed in the 21st century workplace. America’s vitality depends on it.

 
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