Education Opinion

Jobs Report: An Education Imperative

By Contributing Blogger — August 14, 2014 5 min read
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This post is by Ben Kornell, chief operations officer of Envision Education.

Apparently millions of people did not fill in the correct bubble on their multiple-choice job applications. How else can one explain 4.6 million unfilled jobs and over 9.7 million unemployed Americans in the latest jobs report from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics?

The report contributes to mounting evidence that the content-is-king, drill-and-kill approach employed by school systems over the past 20+ years has not translated into a thriving 21st century workforce. While employers added 209,000 jobs in July, 6.2 percent of Americans remain unemployed. Some 3.2 million, or 32.9 percent, of the unemployed have been out of work for more than six months and yet on Wednesday, the Federal Reserve Board reported that “a range of labor market indicators suggests that there remains significant underutilization of labor resources.” In June, the Wall Street Journal reported that one-third of small-business owners and chief executives surveyed said they had unfilled job openings because they couldn’t identify qualified applicants.

The growing mismatch of skilled jobs and unskilled workers is the direct result of a misalignment between schools and the 21st century economy. Under the banner of “education reform,” mastery of core academic content has crowded out essential skills like critical thinking and collaboration. In the search for easily quantifiable “results,” we’ve lost sight of the need for a healthy balance between foundational knowledge and problem-solving skills: this imbalance is now playing out in the U.S. jobs market.

The swing to high stakes standardized tests in the 90s and 00s would not have been so bad had it not also coincided with a dramatic change in the U.S. labor force. Many have chronicled the shift in the U.S. from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy to a knowledge economy: we have now entered a “leadership economy.” It does not matter what you know--information is abundant and ridiculously accessible--and it does not matter what you can produce--someone can produce it cheaper and better elsewhere. The real question for employers is “Can you lead?”

I experienced this misalignment firsthand as an operations director at DaVita, a Fortune 500 healthcare company. My team and I hired and trained hundreds of entry level Patient Care Technicians (PCTs). These positions are at the bottom rung of the ladder, attracting GED holders, high school graduates, and technical college graduates for positions in the $10-12 per hour range. While the job itself involved a series of repetitive tasks over long hours, we continually screened for PCT candidates who could assess data, dynamically problem-solve, and collaborate with the team. In a healthcare emergency, you need a leader in the clinic who can take and support decisive action to save lives. Additionally, we wanted to invest precious training time in those with the potential to become future managers and leaders. Whether we were hiring for PCTs or upper management, what differentiated good and great hires were those key leadership qualities, the Deeper Learning skillset. And now, returning to the education sector in 2013 as Chief Operating Officer for Envision Education, I am even more aware of the need for kids to develop the deeper learning skills--the college and workforce skills--that will help them succeed in the 21st century.

Deeper Learning is not a narrowly defined instructional model or system. Instead, Deeper Learning represents a shift from content recall as the barometer of success to a broader assessment of skills and capabilities. Educators design learning experiences that mirror the teamwork-based, multi-modal projects of the 21st century workplace; in turn, students learn content, use it for real purposes, and reflect on the outcomes (Know, Do, Reflect). Whether in single lesson or in a comprehensive instructional framework, the core competencies connect to the leadership qualities in highest demand: critical thinking, collaboration, communication. With the economic recovery stifled by a low-capability workforce, the Deeper Learning approach is not just an ideal: it is an imperative.

Deeper Learning is not novel--it fundamentally aligns with the way successful corporations like DaVita train and develop talent. Today’s most successful talent-development models incorporate cross-functional projects, “stretch” assignments, and regular coaching and mentoring. Ultimately the assessment of proficiency for promotion is not a singular test but rather a portfolio of work product and experiences that demonstrate competencies and leadership potential.

Nowhere is the Deeper Learning imperative more compelling than in low-income communities where unemployment is at its highest. While the systemic lack of accountability prior to NCLB represented its own call to action, the corresponding interventions resulted in a disproportionate number of minority and low-income young adults being under-employable--skilled enough to work in low-wage, entry-level jobs but ill-equipped to thrive in a dynamic, collaborative environment.

While we know low-income and minority students are often underprepared for today’s leadership economy jobs, the recent parade of Silicon Valley giants confessing their lack of diversity (see Google, Facebook, Apple, etc.) should be closely watched as an indicator for future workforce diversity. Not only do tech jobs represent a leading sector of the future economy, tech companies trend disproportionately young and progressive, and they have the first shot at whatever talent they target...which is why the under-representation of people of color is so concerning.

Google first incorporated back in 1998, when today’s college seniors were entering kindergarten. Reflecting on the magnitude of changes since then, were we preparing low-income students starting school in 1998 to be “Googlers”? And are we preparing today’s low-income kindergarteners to lead the next set of innovative American companies? To be dynamic leaders in an increasingly complex workplace?

The days of the bubble test may be coming to an end, but the battle still wages for the education ideology that will replace it. From Common Core to blended learning, the next wave of ed reform is in full swing. For any of these movements to drive alignment between the leadership economy and our education system, they will ultimately need to adopt a Deeper Learning approach. If not, the data in this week’s job report is a harbinger of what will become an ever-growing skill gap in the American workforce.

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.