School & District Management

High School Coursework Falls Short in Workforce Prep, Survey Suggests

By Alyson Klein — September 18, 2019 3 min read
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High schoolers believe that their educational experience is getting them ready for college. But they’re less certain that their coursework is preparing them for the world of work.

That’s one of the big takeaways from a survey published recently by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a nonprofit philanthropy based in Kansas City, Mo. The survey found that 81 percent of students felt that high school got them “very” or “somewhat” ready for college, compared with just 52 percent who felt it prepared them for the workforce.

“People are coming out of this sort of either-or,” said Aaron North, the vice-president of education at the Kauffman Foundation. “You’re going to college, or you’re not. You’re getting a job after high school or you’re not. I think that’s not reflective of the reality of what’s on the other side of that graduation stage for them.”

He expects that, in the future, many students will transfer in and out of the workforce, gaining both educational credentials and on-the-job experience.

The survey also found that students and adults in general expect that technology and computer science jobs will be a major growth industry, with 85 percent of adults and 88 percent of students saying they expect those gigs to be in “much” or at least “somewhat more” demand in the next decade.

And 74 percent of students think they’ll have a job in 20 years that hasn’t been invented yet.

Students “have only grown up in age of really accelerated tech evolution,” North said. “I think that’s just the world that they are in. It is a world of creation. It is a world of change.”

Overwhelmingly, students, parents, and employers surveyed thought high schoolers would be better off learning how to file their taxes than learning about the Pythagorean theorem. At least 82 percent of parents, students, and employers thought schools should focus more on the 10-40 EZ form than on that fundamental concept in geometry.

And 81 percent of students said they thought high school should focus most closely on helping students develop real world skills such as problem solving and collaboration rather than focusing so much on specific academic subject matter expertise.

“I think what that highlights is this idea that there needs to be this practical connection between what and how you are learning when you’re in school and what happens when you’re not in school,” North said. “So that doesn’t mean it has to be directly related to your everyday life, but it does mean that there could be a balance between things that may be applicable to a very narrow number of fields and things that are highly applicable to your life no matter what field you go into or what path you choose.”

Employers are also more likely to rate employees highly if they have completed an internship in their industry and have technical certifications, than if they only have a college degree, the survey found.

But at the same time, 56 percent of employers surveyed felt that someone with only a high school degree would be held back from success in life because of their education. Students were even more convinced of the benefits of college, with 63 percent saying that having only a high school education would be a roadblock to success.

Still, most adults—59 percent of those surveyed—said they can’t connect what they learned in high school to their current jobs. That’s especially true of workers in blue-collar jobs, 61 percent of whom say that their jobs weren’t relevant to their high school educations, compared with 52 percent of white-collar employees.

“Parents who have experienced a non-college pathway understand that those pathways are viable and they can lead to really good options,” North said. “A huge percentage of our population ends up not getting a college degree. And so there are millions and millions of people out there navigating the non-degree world, without much of a roadmap, the kind of roadmap we’ve provided around college. So I think that’s reflective of people who have found that and are understanding that, whether it’s for themselves or for their own kids.”

The surveys were conducted online in June, and included 1,015 adults, 510 high school students, and 501 employers.

Want more on the future of work? Check out some great coverage here.

Image: Getty


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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.


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