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July 2014
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor…or Unemployed? How We Need to Sync Education with Workforce Reality
By Zenda Douglas

“One of the most fundamental obligations of any society is to prepare its adolescents and young adults to lead productive and prosperous lives as adults. This means preparing all young people with a solid enough foundation of literacy, numeracy, and thinking skills for responsible citizenship, career development, and lifelong learning, states the seminal Pathways to Prosperity report of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.


Yet the report continues to say, “there are profoundly troubling signs that the U.S. is now failing to meet its obligation to prepare millions of young adults. In an era in which education has never been more important to economic success, the U.S. has fallen behind many other nations in educational attainment and achievement. Within the U.S. economy, there is also growing evidence of a ‘skills gap.’”


The report lays the foundation for study of the how much and what kind of post-secondary is really needed to prosper in the new American economy.


“What the whole world wants is a good job,” Gallup Chairman Jim Clifton states more bluntly in his best-seller The Coming Jobs War. He acknowledges the global jobs war and maintains that “the next 30 years won’t be led by political or military force. Instead, the world will be led with economic force—a force that is primarily driven by job creation and quality GDP growth.” He says leaders and legislatures must realize that every decision they make should consider the impact, first and foremost, good jobs.”


He also advocates that school leaders think beyond curricula and their graduation rates; “students don’t want to merely graduate; they want an education that results in a good job.”


Out of Sync


No one has better first-hand experience with the subject matter than Charlotte’s own Bill Anderson. As a principal in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School System (CMS) for over 25 years, Anderson witnessed thousands of graduates walk across the stage and into their futures, knowing full well that at least one-third of them had no idea what they were doing next. Anderson is now executive director of MeckEd, a private non-profit organization committed to excellence in public education.


“Although approximately 60 percent of them would enroll in college according to national statistics, only about 59 percent of that number would graduate within six years,” he comments. “Few knew what they wanted to study as a major and fewer still had any experiential learning behind them that could lend itself towards a career.”


Anderson witnessed what is occurring all over the country: high school students heading off to college or out into the world with little, if any, tangible knowledge of career options. Compounding the problem, a college education no longer guarantees employment that parallels the investment in time and money. Nearly half of 2010 college graduates work in jobs that do not require a bachelor of arts or science degree. Many cannot find a job at all and, for the students who did not graduate from high school or enter into post-secondary education, unemployment rates have shifted into double digits.


Meanwhile, companies across the United States are lamenting their loss of workers to retirement and wondering where replacements will be found as they see an up-and-coming workforce that is unprepared to meet the old and new demands of business operations. Plus, importantly, the rapid changes that continue to occur in science and technology are outpacing the typical liberal arts classroom while companies are in great need of workers that are highly and specifically trained.


This is particularly true in advanced manufacturing, information technology, health care and engineering. “What’s really happening is that so many fields have begun to flourish and require very specific one-to-two-year certifications. There are now lots of very valid careers that don’t require a four-year degree,” says Anderson.


Collaborative Workforce Development


MeckEd was established in 2006 with a mission to educate, engage and impact the Charlotte-Mecklenburg community through work that supports strong, vibrant and successful public schools. Over the years, it has made conscious efforts to increase high school graduation rates and to have students understand the importance of secondary and post-secondary education. In so doing, it has sought to raise awareness among educators, students, parents and the business community that higher education should rightfully mean different things to different students.


MeckEd has taken up the charge to lead a strategic partnership with Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools, Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC), and the University of North Carolina (UNC) Charlotte to implement a Collaborative Workforce Development Plan to address the disconnect between education and the country’s need for a qualified, highly technical, workforce and its ramifications. The Collaborative Workforce Development Plan identifies twelve key initiatives that align education with workforce needs.


MeckEd’s critical role is to serve as a link between the schools and the Mecklenburg business community to build relationships and guide businesses to establish opportunities for students to learn about career options and gain hands-on, on-site experience in various fields. These opportunities can be fulfilled through seminars and workshops, guest speakers, site visits, job shadowing, internships and apprenticeships.


Access to Career and Technical Education coursework for students in high school is also very important to the process. Now, high school students can take courses that are specifically designed to align with and lay a foundation to the coursework needed to fulfill degree, diploma and certification programs at CPCC and at UNC Charlotte.


“There are hundreds of students who don’t know what they want to do or can do who could have their interests ignited by these programs,” espouses Anderson who joined MeckEd in 2010. “Many of these students lose interest in school or simply muddle through because they lack information to understand the relevance of their studies to real life. Participation by the business community allows students to discover what they like to do and what they need to learn to be able to do it. They are then able to make an informed choice as to what kind of education they need.”


The Collaborative Workforce Development Plan is modeled after the work and ideas of Robert Schwartz, academic dean and professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who heads up the Pathways to Prosperity project which has met with broad success.


The report stresses how far the United States has fallen behind other countries, especially in manufacturing, and how this has greatly diminished the middle class. It questions the modern-day validity of our beliefs about education and concludes that the ultimate implication of too great a focus on academia is that America has ceased to be a leading force in the world of making things.


It points out that the four-year-degree mantra is actually harmful for some students who need, instead, a sharper focus on their career goals. And it recognizes that to achieve success in meeting workforce demands, employers must play a greatly expanded role in supporting career pathways.


Conventional Wisdom Flawed


For the past few decades, generations of Americans have relied upon the notion that to be successful in career and life, one must earn an undergraduate, perhaps a graduate degree. This idea was fueled by good intentions of society, particularly parents, who wanted their children to experience greater success and have an easier life than they had working in factories and sweat shops, garages and mines or on the farm where the labor was hard and the environment dirty.


“Offshoring labor was an easier way to make money and a cheaper way to get products,” explains Clifton Vann of Livingston & Haven, a Charlotte-based industrial solutions provider that offers apprenticeships under the Collaborative Workforce Development Plan. Vann maintains that the U.S. has drifted away from manufacturing, outsourcing to other countries, and towards a nation driven by service industries.


“We’ve come to a point where we can’t chop our own wood anymore,” declares Vann. “When we were selling tractors and appliances, we had something tangible of value. When we started selling each others’ mortgages we collapsed our middle class which is what supports manufacturing. So much talent has gone to unemployment.”


Today, with incredible advances in technology, the manufacturing workplace is a far cry from factories where workers stood all day and got dirty and greasy. Today’s manufacturing is carried out in pristine, computer-controlled laboratories, the operation of which requires specialized training. Also, manufacturing jobs garner paychecks that often exceed those of workers holding a four-year degree.


Still, it’s a hard sell to persuade parents that two-year community college degrees and certification programs are as good as, and carry the status of, four-year degrees as pathways to rewarding careers. This is particularly true for families whose children are the first generation to attend college. The effort must go beyond facts and deal with the hopes and aspirations of parents for their children. It’s also about pride.


As the nation chose higher education as the single track to help students transition from school to career and adolescence to adulthood, most other tracks were left with a stigma attached to them, particularly those jobs in the trades or “blue collar realm.” This stigma continues on, not just in the job market, but also in the selection of coursework by students. The path to offering more choices and greater flexibility will require impressive marketing and public awareness campaigns, points out MeckEd’s Anderson.


“We do respect the college path,” insists Anderson. “It is the perfect path for approximately 60 percent of our youth. But we also need to have students graduate with some practical experience towards their career path.”


Changing the Culture


Parents and students are not the only segments of the population that need to be moved to change, businesses also need to come forward to work with and help students decide what they want to do after high school.


Internships and apprenticeships are needed from every cluster including advanced manufacturing; automotive and logistics; business management, entrepreneurship and financial services; construction and energy; industry cluster; engineering; health care and human services; information technology; and public safety and first responders.


“Employers need to understand that getting involved in their own workforce development is an investment in time, money and knowledge versus charity,” says Anderson. “Workforce development means continuous operations and the ability to attract new customers. Community leaders need to understand that companies who are interested in moving their operations here must find a skilled workforce waiting.”


“We’re all about building a talent pipeline; not just vocational pursuits but arts, as well,” says Richard Zollinger, vice president for learning and workforce development for CPCC. “All of our programs are linked to jobs. We are creating a foundation that will supply skilled individuals for high demand jobs in advanced technical skills.”


Zollinger says that the community college is starting to see students with success stories transferring into advanced manufacturing. “We have a long way to go, but we’re finding success because we are immersing in hands-on experience. You don’t learn about welding by reading about it. You see it demonstrated; then you do it.”


The Collaborative Workforce Development Plan is currently in place within four CMS high schools. “For every CMS high school in the system, there are probably 500 students that want an internship but they aren’t available. It’s an issue of supply and demand. Students want to do these things. We need business partners, small and large, to increase supply,” says Anderson.


A European State of Mind


According to the Pathways to Prosperity report, “If you look at the U.S. secondary education system through a comparative lens, one big difference becomes immediately apparent: most advanced nations place far more emphasis on vocational education than we do.


“Throughout northern and central Europe especially, vocational education and training is a mainstream system, the pathway helping most young people make the transition from adolescence to productive adulthood.”


Mecklenburg doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel to implement much of the Collaborative Workforce Development Plan. It can look to European countries that have been using a similar model all along. In Europe, business and education are required to work together. Together, they assure that students finish their studies and are ready to go to work. Consequently, there is a more vibrant middle class in countries such as Germany and they have weathered economic downturns with less unemployment.


The Pathways report describes the European system generally: In Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and Switzerland, after grade 9 or 10 between 40 and 70 percent of young people opt for an educational program that typically combines classroom and workplace learning over the next three years.


This culminates in a diploma or certificate, a “qualification,” with real currency in the labor market. In virtually all of these countries, vocational education also provides a pathway into tertiary education for those who choose to take it.


Upper secondary vocational education varies more from country to country, but there are two basic models. The first, usually referred to as apprenticeship or the dual system, has students spend three or four days in paid company-organized training at the workplace, with the other day or two in related academic work in the classroom.


Germany has the oldest and best-known apprenticeship system, which offers programs leading to recognized qualifications in about 350 different occupations. Switzerland also has a very highly regarded apprenticeship system.


Other countries have opted for a model in which vocational education is mostly provided in school-based programs, although they all incorporate at least some work-based learning. These countries typically introduce students to a broad cluster of occupations (e.g. health care or IT) before narrowing the focus of training in the third year.


These models provide food for thought as it becomes an economic necessity for the U.S. to revaluate its preparation of the workforce. It is as elementary as the lesson from the nursery rhyme, “Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor…Oh it’s such a lot of things there are and such a lot to be.”


We must do something to get back in sync with workforce reality. “And,” concludes MeckEd’s Anderson, “partnerships between education and business are essential to the task.”



Zenda Douglas is a Greater Charlotte Biz freelance writer.
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