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Bob Schwartz: 3 Ways to Make America’s Youth More Employable

How to close the “middle skills” gap for technical-level jobs that don’t require a four-year college degree.


In 2011, two colleagues and I released Pathways to Prosperity, a report focused on the challenges of preparing young Americans for the 21st century. We argued that our education system is failing nearly half of young Americans, leaving them without a college degree or other credential with value in the labor market. The report raised three big questions:

  • With only one in three young Americans attaining a bachelor’s degree by age 25, does it make sense to continue to organize high schools as if four-year college should be the goal for all?
  • Given that as many as 30 percent of the jobs projected over the next decade will be in the “middle skills” category — technician-level jobs requiring some education beyond high school, but not necessarily a four-year degree — shouldn’t we build more career pathways to prepare students to fill the best of these jobs, especially those that require a strong STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) foundation?
  • Given the healthy economies and low youth unemployment rates of countries like Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland — countries with vocational systems that serve between 40 and 70 percent of 16-19 year olds — why are we not trying to learn from the best international policy and practice in this field?

Interest in the Pathways report led us in 2012 to create the Pathways to Prosperity Network, in partnership with Jobs for the Future. We are now working in about 40 regional labor markets in 12 states to help local leaders build career pathways that span grades 9-14 and are designed to equip young people with the skills and credentials required for high-growth fields, such as information technology, healthcare and advanced manufacturing.

In the last three years, we have found several big challenges in doing this work:

First, because the K-12 system, the community college system and the workforce system typically operate in isolation from one another — with different bureaucracies, funding streams and constituencies — it takes very strong political leadership at the state level to cut through red tape and enable regional leaders to design programs that cut across organizational silos and combine funding sources to better serve young people.

The second key challenge is how to persuade employers to act in their own long-term self-interest and take more leadership in building a talent pipeline to fill critically important “middle skill” jobs. There are important lessons to be learned from countries with strong vocational systems. In Switzerland, for example, employers do not leave the problem of creating a skilled workforce to educators to solve. Rather, they band together through industry associations to ensure they have a steady pipeline of well-trained, highly motivated young workers. They join with educators in setting skills standards and assessing student progress in meeting them. Most importantly, businesses must create substantial opportunities for students to acquire both “soft” skills and technical skills where they can best be learned — at the workplace.

The third big challenge is messaging. Vocational education has historically carried a stigma best exemplified by the phrase, “a fine thing — for other people’s children.” We need to persuade policymakers, parents and employers that high-quality technical education can be the best option for most young people — especially given that there is no longer a guaranteed return on the high cost of four-year college.

We need parents and policymakers to understand the consequence of behaving as if the four-year college is right for everyone. The four-year college completion rate is about 60 percent, but it’s only half of that for lower-income students. If you drop out of college, you are likely to be no better off in the labor market than high school graduates who never enrolled — and you will probably have some student debt. If you are among the fortunate 25 year olds who completed a four-year degree, you are as likely to be underemployed — working part-time or in a job that does not require a four-year degree — as you are to be in the kind of job you thought college would guarantee.

Facts like these create an opening for people to consider another option — a high school program that:

  • Combines a rigorous academic foundation with career-focused training;
  • Links seamlessly to a postsecondary technical certificate or degree; and
  • Keeps open the option to continue on to a four-year degree.

According to a recent research report, 5.5 million 16-24 year olds are neither in school nor employed, including 21 percent of African-Americans. If we can’t more effectively join forces to offer a more relevant, career-focused education option to most 16-19 year olds, as our European competitors do, we will never succeed in closing the “middle skills” gap — and we will continue to needlessly waste enormous human potential.

(Top image: Courtesy of Thinkstock)

This is part of a multi-week series on the U.S. skills gap, presented in conjunction with the GE Foundation’s conference, Bridging the Gap: Success for Tomorrow with STEM Skills Today. Follow @GE_Foundation for updates on the conference.



Bob Schwartz is Professor of Practice Emeritus at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Co-leader of the Pathways to Prosperity Network.



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