Federal Agencies Sound the Alarm Over the ‘School-to-Work Transition’

May 23, 1990 8 min read

By Lynn Olson

Washington--Almost half of American high-school students hope to go from school directly into the workforce. But finding and keeping a job--particularly one with the possibility of career advancement--has proven an elusive goal for the approximately 20 million noncollege-bound youths between the ages of 16 and 24.

The “school-to-work transition” in the United States is the “worst in the industrialized world,” according to Marc S. Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy.

Educators and businessmen in most other developed countries assume joint responsibility for young people until they become established in the workplace, he noted. But in the United States, he added, schools and employers leave young people to flounder from one unproductive job to the next.

Mr. Tucker’s comments came during a three-day conference held here last week on the school-to-work transition. Conference participants agreed that the meeting, sponsored by the Departments of Education and Labor, was just the latest signal of the growing concern over the future of the nation’s noncollege-bound population.

That concern, experts in labor and education said, arises from three factors:

A shrinking pool of young employees;

A growing gap between the skills those workers possess and the demands of the job market; and

The emergence of a global economy, in which countries with highly skilled and educated citizens are most likely to succeed in developing high-wage, full-employment marketplaces.

‘Slapped in the Face’

“Not so many years ago, we didn’t need a school system that produced a high percentage of skilled workers,” Gov. Carroll A. Campbell Jr. of South Carolina said. “Our economy had a place for unskilled workers.”

“Today,” he added, “we’re getting slapped in the face for yesterday’s complacency.”

Compared with the United States, according to conferees, both the Europeans and the Japanese provide a higher quality of academic preparation and workplace learning for their noncollege-bound youths. As a result, they suggested, Japan and many of the European countries are better at getting new ideas into the marketplace and at developing applications for their products.

According to Secretary of Labor Elizabeth H. Dole, the United States is one of the few Western nations without a formal school-to-work transition.

Indeed, conference attendees said, most large corporate employers are reluctant to hire young people directly out of high school, focusing instead on individuals in their early to mid-20’s who have already proven themselves in the job market.

Declining Earnings

As a result, experts asserted, many young adults find themselves in part-time, low-paying, dead-end jobs that make it difficult to support themselves or their families.

A 1988 study by the William T. Grant Foundation found that the income of families headed by 20- to 24-year-olds declined by 27 percent between 1973 and 1986. During the same period, the earnings of male high-school graduates in the same age group declined by 28.2 percent.

“And if the bridge to employment is a tough one for high-school graduates,” Ms. Dole said, “it is nearly impossible for the 700,000 of our young people who drop out of high school each year.”

A recent study found that 57 percent of teenagers who had dropped out of high school in 1987 and 1988 were unemployed, she said. The rate was 77 percent for black high-school dropouts.

Meanwhile, employers continue to complain that they are having trouble finding workers with the skills they require. In a recent survey of Fortune 500 companies, 58 percent complained that they could not find employees with the necessary basic skills.

Problems Run Deep

But conference participants cautioned that forging stronger linkages between the worlds of school and work will not be easy.

“The issues of collaboration are structural, and they are deep,” said Sue E. Berryman, director of the Institute on Education and the Economy at Teachers College, Columbia University.

In place of a systemic approach to preparing and placing young people in jobs, noted Gerald Hayward, Deputy Director of the National Center for Research in Vocational Education at the University of California at Berkeley, the United States relies on a highly decentralized, piecemeal delivery system.

In California alone, he noted, more than 80 programs focus on vocational and technical training.

“That’s nuts,” he said. “It is little wonder that coordination and cooperation are less than optimal.”

At the same time, both employers and educators have failed to specify the skills needed to be productive citizens or workers, Ms. Berryman said.

Even the term “school-to-work transition” is problematic, she asserted, because it implies that “first you learn and then you work,” and that learning and working are essentially two different things.

Conferees also suggested that most in-school learning has failed to keep pace either with the demands of the marketplace or with advances in cognitive science.

While school emphasizes the memorization of facts, individual competition, and decontextualized learning, participants said, the workplace focuses on team efforts, applied knowledge, and creative problem-solving.

Incentives Missing

As a result, suggested Ivan Charner, director of the National Institute for Work and Learning, “students see little connection between what goes on in school and their future job options or responsibilities.’'

Although 40 percent to 50 percent of high-school students work while they are in school, he said, there is little connection between those jobs and what happens in their classrooms.

In addition, participants argued, there are few incentives for high-school students to succeed academically.

Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, noted that students are likely to wind up in minimum-wage jobs when they get out of school, regardless of their performance in the classroom.

He suggested that employers need to begin requesting students’ high-school transcripts and using them to make hiring and salary decisions.

“That’s a very central part of the school-to-work connection,” he said. “American businesses, by their hiring practices, are saying it doesn’t make any difference whether you work hard.”

Other participants suggested that incentives need to be in place to encourage collaboration among high schools, postsecondary institutions, and businesses.

Mr. Hayward noted, for example, that high schools in California allow students to simultaneously enroll in community colleges, but that they lose funds when teenagers take advantage of the option.

Devalued Option

But one of the biggest stumbling blocks for young people to make the transition from school to work, conference participants said, is the problem of image.

Although only 20 percent of U.S. adults actually have baccalaureate degrees, said Dale Parnell, president of the American Association of Community and Junior Colleges, Americans have devalued occupations that do not require a college diploma.

In the United States, Mr. Tucker noted, “you are nothing if you do not go to college.”

As a result, he and others suggested, parents are reluctant to see their children enroll in vocational-education programs or other courses that might prepare them for the world of work. And society, as a whole, has paid little attention to the noncollege-bound.

Even most federal education policy, noted Betsy Brand, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for vocational and adult education, is focused on the college-going population.

Conference participants offered a number of suggestions to improve the school-to-work connection.

For example, they recommended, the lines between academic and vocational education should be blurred, and all youngsters should be provided with more applied-learning experiences.

Several participants also recommended that the “general education” track in high school be eliminated.

Although some 42 percent of high-school students are enrolled in a general-education track, the programs have been criticized for lacking rigor and coherence. Nearly two out of three high-school dropouts come from the general-education track.

Conference attendees also suggested that the structure of high schools should be revamped.

Specifically, they said, time requirements should be eliminated and students should be allowed to exit and enter school at will. And graduation should be based on a demonstration of competencies, they suggested, not on time spent in school.

Promising Approaches

Finally, conferees pointed to several programs that they said help place young people in jobs, without cutting off their future options to pursue further education or credentials.

One increasingly popular approach, known as “2 plus 2" programs, combines students’ last two years in high school with their first two years in a community college, allowing them to pursue an integrated curriculum both in the classroom and in the workplace.

Participants also praised the West German “apprenticeship” system, which has gained increasing attention in this country.

Under that program, students who sign on with a firm receive on-the-job training four days a week and participate in classroom instruction on the fifth day. Two-thirds of the instruction is trade-oriented; one-third consists of general studies.

Students who complete an apprenticeship after a two- to four-year period--more than 60 percent of West German youths participate in the program--must take a state-approved exam. Eighty-five percent to 90 percent pass the test.

Although business leaders and educators generally lauded the West German approach--including its emphasis on close collaboration between employers and educators--they cautioned that it was not directly transportable to this country.

In West Germany, for example, students are tracked into different career options from an early age--an approach that Americans would not accept, conference participants noted.

Labor Department officials pointed out that the agency has launched several projects to help smooth the transition from school to work.

In January, Ms. Dole appointed a commission of business, labor, and education leaders to develop national competency guidelines that define the skills employees need on the job. That group was scheduled to meet for the first time this week.

The department also plans to provide funding for a series of demonstration projects to assist the school-to-work population.

Last week, for example, it announced the awarding of Youth Opportunities Unlimited, or you, grants to seven localities with a high number of at-risk youths. The $2.7-million grants will provide funding for programs aimed at helping students graduate from high school and find a job.

A version of this article appeared in the May 23, 1990 edition of Education Week as Federal Agencies Sound the Alarm Over the ‘School-to-Work Transition’