Business leaders in Delaware looked at the results of the 1994 survey with disbelief. Every public high school in the state had been asked how many times each year it received requests from employers to review transcripts of job applicants. All but four reported fewer than 10 requests a year. First conclusion? Delaware employers hire thousands of recent graduates and part-time high school students, but few bother to look at records of attendance and punctuality or find out how well applicants have done academically. Second conclusion? If this is happening in Delaware, there is a good chance it's happening in other states.
The impact of the survey was not lost on Delaware educators. It confirmed what many already had suspected. Most employers were ignoring valuable information that helped define an applicant's skills and work habits. The hiring of young people was being done without so much as a glance at their high school "work history." After years of complaints from employers about the quality of the "product" schools were turning out, educators could now argue that the on-the-job weaknesses of many young employees might have been forecast by a glance at transcripts showing failing grades or erratic attendance. This lack of interest on the part of employers, educators speculated, was sending a message to many students that, unless they planned to apply to college, school performance and attendance counted for very little.
Unfortunately, the educators are probably right. For most young Delawareans who enter the work world directly out of high school, a large percentage of whom come from the general academic track, how well they did in high school and how often or promptly they showed up will never be reviewed by any employer--ever. This is true for over half the population between the ages of 16 and 21. The question for most educators is, "Does this lack of accountability contribute toward crippling student motivation to perform?" Most guidance counselors in Delaware believe that it does and that the business community could help reverse this situation if it convinced students that grades and attendance matter and that employers will evaluate high school records before they hire, both for part-time and full-time jobs.
How does the Delaware business community feel about the value of using high school transcripts in the hiring process? A survey of small and large businesses throughout the state revealed that, although contrary to previous behavior, 163 of the 178 survey respondents agreed that performance and attendance records of high school students and recent graduates would be important in selecting a job candidate. In fact, most of the respondents were human-resource professionals and more than half said they "strongly" agreed with that proposition.
The survey allowed employers to add personal comments. Some shared the belief that while performance and attendance records should be evaluated for teens and recent graduates, employers should not use the records when people mature and advance beyond their adolescent level of performance and conduct. On the whole, employers considered transcripts to be most valuable for applicants currently in high school seeking part-time jobs or those who had been out of high school no more than three or four years. The respondents believed that a substantive full-time work history was generally more important in evaluating young applicants than transcripts alone.
Comments from the survey also shed light on why many businesses did not request transcripts in the past, even though they believed the information on the transcript was important. Some respondents, for example, expressed surprise that transcripts could be legally obtained by employers as long as applicants gave permission. They were not aware that high schools in our state would respond cooperatively to such requests. Others said that they knew transcripts could be obtained but that past experience in requesting them had proved costly, time-consuming, and simply not worth the effort. A few expressed concern about a lack of correlation between required job skills and high school courses and grades. These employers wanted to know whether applicants had graduated from high school but weren't interested in how well they did. They didn't seem to care if a young applicant got straight D's or straight B's, was absent from school four days a year or 40. Interviews with other human-resource managers following the survey revealed that the "need for correlation" argument had little substance and that using high school transcripts in the hiring process did not differ significantly from using college transcripts for higher-level jobs.
These two surveys have energized the business and education communities in Delaware and have set in motion the hard work of addressing this issue. The initiative launched to do so is called hire education and its purpose is clear: Get Delaware employers to request high school transcripts whenever they hire young people, so that students take school more seriously. Every public school district in the state has joined the effort, with superintendents signing a pledge to the business community to provide free transcripts in a timely manner (within 48 hours). Responding quickly to employer requests will be much easier because of a major financial contribution from several employers. Three companies, Bell Atlantic, Citicorp, and ppg Industries, have purchased new fax machines for every public high school guidance department in the state. Working with educators, they have developed a streamlined process which allows the school legally to fax transcripts when requests are made by employers.
Now Delaware schools are turning to their second responsibility: to raise awareness among students that employers are going to be looking at school records when they hire. Districts have promised to help arrange opportunities for employers to talk with students about the new accountability of hire education and emphasize the message that school counts for everyone, whether they plan to work or go to college, whether they plan to be employed part time after school or full time after graduation.
Hire education is now seeking participation and signed pledges from both large and small employers throughout the state. The pledge pulls no punches and begins with the statement: "Our company acknowledges that few employers who hire high school students or recent graduates ask to review a record of their performance and attendance. We believe that this trend sends a message to many students that getting a job has little to do with their schooling and may raise the question of why they should work hard in school or show up consistently." Employers then commit to requesting high school transcripts along with their other job-application information, such as results of company pre-employment tests. The pledge also asks that companies send personnel into the local schools to talk about academic and workplace skills needed for success in various careers.
The goal of hire education is to have 1,000 employers signed up by 1996, a task given to the statewide organization I head linking businesses and schools in a variety of partnerships. Working through existing networks, we will also explore in this initiative the issue of standardizing transcripts for all Delaware public high schools, both in form and content. This has pleased state reformers who would eventually like to provide employers with uniform student portfolios demonstrating specific skills and knowledge.
Will hire education cause any change in student behavior or motivation? Veteran guidance counselors and teachers say it will. But any proof of change is likely to be anecdotal. Far too many internal and external variables are uncontrollable to successfully build an empirical case for the initiative. Still, common sense dictates that if students are asked to work hard in high school and to show up consistently, they will want to know that their efforts pay off. For millions of students currently in school, there is no promise of a payoff now, and they know it.
Hire education and initiatives like it underscore the often forgotten fact that educational reform is not the exclusive province of schools. The community has a huge role, especially the business community. Human nature is not likely to change soon, and it has always demanded, for peak performance, a potential reward consistent with effort put forth. Young people in our college-preparatory high school tracks perform at their highest in part to favorably impress a college-admissions officer. The reward of a good job for those not college bound could be equally motivating.
If Delaware employers are a representative sample, students across America are part of an employment system that puts little stock in how well they perform. This has to change if school reform is to work. Employers have to help educators demonstrate a meaningful connection between school and work.