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The Fact that Today’s Youth Feel Ill-Prepared or Uninformed Should Set Off Alarm Bells

For many high school graduates, “career-ready” is more a catch-phrase than an accurate description of their educational experiences.

According to one survey, over half of students with a career goal in mind say they have not received advice on what steps to take to secure their desired jobs.

Meanwhile, the percentage of graduates tracked into remedial college courses — as high as 40 to 60 percent of first-year college students — reveals that many are underprepared for the rigors of a postsecondary learning or employment setting.

The fact that today’s youth feel ill-prepared or uninformed should set off alarm bells.

While each student bears responsibility for his or her own success, far too often students are not given the support they need to prosper — either inside or outside the school building.

If we want today’s youth to be ready to meet tomorrow’s workforce demands, it is time to think strategically about what we want for our students and how we can help them achieve those goals.

To help answer that question, the Committee for Economic Development (CED) recently published findings from a national listening tour conducted in five states that brought together two stakeholder groups — parents and business leaders. Both groups have a vested interest in students’ long-term career readiness. The CED provided a forum to talk specifically about aspirations for graduates.

Parents, unsurprisingly, want their children to be financially self-sufficient, but also happy and successful at work. Business leaders want to see the personal attributes needed for success. Each wants tomorrow’s workers to be “good people” — ethical, value-oriented, helpful and respectful. While parents and business leaders expressed views unique to their community, a common theme was the need to do more to help students consider and successfully chart their vocational paths.

We need to strengthen coordination among schools, parents and students, and businesses, to create clear job pathways. For instance, schools could partner with local economic leaders to host career fairs like those seen on college campuses, but with a focus on how to enter a given field. Across CED’s focus groups, parents and business leaders identified the lack of available career counselors or mentors as a vital, but often unfilled, resource for students. There is a distinct need for strong advising programs that can foster relationships and partnerships among students, schools and local industry leaders.

One way to achieve greater collaboration while readying students with the skills they need for future careers is through work-based learning programs. Where better to learn professional skills and norms than within industry itself? In Washington, the state superintendent’s office worked with the Manufacturing Industrial Council and Boeing to create Core Plus, a program that brings manufacturing-focused curricula into classrooms, which can be used to satisfy high school graduation requirements. There are other ways to expose students to the workplace outside the classroom, too, like the internship or co-op model that connects students to local employers.

But technical know-how isn’t the only thing that matters. Responses from the business community across all sites strongly suggest that the interpersonal skills that enable a person to succeed are equally, if not more, important. This makes sense: Businesses can provide on-the-job technical training to someone with the willingness and aptitude to learn, but “soft skills” like time management and teamwork develop over time. Early on-the-job or hands-on experience is, naturally, one way to cultivate important employability skills. To fully address business workforce needs, however, we must ensure that schools are reinforcing the development of soft skills as well.

Making room for this development in already-packed curricula is a challenge, and it doesn’t help that these skills are not as easy to measure as, say, proficiency in algebra. One solution is to develop and teach curricula that integrate cognitive and non-cognitive skills, the focus of the Partnership for 21st Century Learning framework adopted by several states. A less “conventional” option is to bring work to campus, which is what Willamette High School in Oregon has done with its student-run coffee shop, one component of the school’s career and technical education program.

We know that there’s ample room for improvement when it comes to ensuring our nation’s youth are well-equipped to tackle “What’s Next” with confidence. What’s clear from the national listening tour is that parents and business leaders have much in common when it comes to what they believe our youth need to be prepared for success.

Readiness for “What’s Next” matters to students, parents and the business community.

It matters for our economy, too. If we, as a nation, continue to graduate students who are not ready to work or take on new training, whether technical or traditional college, then our present and future economic outlook will not be a secure one.

This story about high school reform was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter

Cindy Cisneros is vice president of education programs at the Committee for Economic Development.