Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

How 4 Communities Are Struggling to Prepare Kids for an Uncertain Future

By Benjamin Herold — February 04, 2020 12 min read
Hector Vazquez Pacheco, a junior at Northeast Early College High School in Austin, Texas, got a jump start on his career aspirations through the school’s Career Launch program.
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Schools are already struggling to prepare for the impact that automation and technological change will have on the future of work across the United States.

But the real challenge is even steeper than that: K-12 leaders must also recognize that the country is made up of thousands of smaller local and regional economies, marked by sharp differences that will likely grow sharper in the coming decade.

That’s the key takeaway for educators from a 2019 report from the McKinsey Global Institute, titled “The Future of Work in America: People and Places, Today and Tomorrow.”

“Local economies across the country have been on divergent trajectories for years, and they are entering the automation age from different starting points,” the report says. “They can draw on a common toolbox of solutions, but the priorities vary from place to place.”

To get a better sense of what that means for schools, Education Week and the McKinsey Global Institute partnered to profile four very different places: a thriving urban hub in Texas, a New England city struggling with a stagnant job market, a Georgia town heavily reliant on a vulnerable manufacturing industry, and one of the most sparsely populated rural communities in Wyoming.

First, McKinsey Global Institute provided data about the local economies in each place. Then, it shared its analysts’ estimates about the impact automation will have on local jobs over the next decade. Armed with that information, Education Week talked with local K-12 leaders about their distinctive approaches to workforce preparation.

What did we learn?

When it comes to getting kids ready for the future of work, schools are slowly figuring out how to balance thinking globally with acting locally.

Some skills are likely to be valuable no matter where students end up living. As a result, there’s a broad consensus that schools should pursue universal strategies such as expanding STEM education, building more hands-on, collaborative problem solving into the curriculum, and cultivating the creative and interpersonal skills that machines won’t soon take over.

But schools are also focusing on their own backyards, partnering with local employers and civic leaders to develop programs and offer credentials that reflect their distinctive labor markets.

McKinsey Global Institute senior partner André Dua said in an interview last August that that combination of strategies makes sense—as does finding partners in business, higher education, local government, and philanthropy to help enact them.

“It takes everyone coming together,” Dua said. “We should expect to see more of that.”

Austin, Texas

Hector Vazquez Pacheco was just a high school sophomore when he started taking cybersecurity classes at Austin Community College. The lingo and acronyms were unfamiliar and intimidating.

Four Different Futures

In 2019, the McKinsey Global Institute analyzed the local economies of thousands of counties and hundreds of cities around the country. Researchers analyzed patterns of job growth since the Great Recession. They also estimated the impact of automation on local job markets in the coming decade, modeling a variety of different scenarios based on factors affecting the pace and extent of adoption of new technologies in different industries.

The data profiles with this story provide a snapshot of four very different local labor markets, with four very different futures, in four very different parts of the United States. For education leaders, the variation across these communities raises an important question: Should K-12 workforce preparation focus on providing students with a general set of skills that might be applicable anywhere? Or should it focus on preparing students specifically for the local labor market?

Austin, Texas

“High-Growth Hub”

  • Total jobs, 2017: 1.1 million
  • Potential net jobs added, 2017-30: +335,000 (+30 percent growth rate)
  • Fastest growing fields: Health care and social assistance (+51,900 jobs); professional, scientific & technical services (+26,600 jobs)
  • Potential growth rate for jobs requiring bachelor’s degree vs. high school diploma: 35 percent vs. 24 percent

Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, Conn.

“Trailing City”

  • Total jobs, 2017: 480,600
  • Potential net jobs added, 2017-30: 39,600 (+8 percent growth rate)
  • Potential automation displacement rate for those ages 18-34, 2017-30: 23 percent
  • Potential net jobs decline in key fields for young people, 2017-2030: Office support (-7,700), Food services (-3,100)

Dalton, Ga.


  • Total jobs, 2017: 71,400
  • Potential net jobs added, 2017-30: 2,300 (+3 percent growth rate)
  • Potential total automation displacement rate, 2017-30: 28 percent
  • Potential automation displacement rate of whites vs. Hispanics, 2017-30: 26 percent vs. 33 percent
  • Potential automation displacement rate in manufacturing jobs, 2017-30: 39 percent
  • Potential net manufacturing jobs lost, 2017-30: -2,500

Niobrara County, Wyo.

“Distressed Americana”

  • Total jobs, 2015: 1,100
  • Potential net jobs lost, 2017-30: -76 (-7 percent growth rate)
  • Fields with highest total employment, 2015: Public Administration (248); agriculture, forestry, fishing & hunting (159); construction (112)
  • Share of total population below the poverty line, 2015: 14.9 percent
  • Net population decline, 2010-2017: -95 (-3.7 percent)

McKinsey Global Institute, U.S. Census

But he had an unusual supporter to turn to: A mentor from the technology company Dell, with whom Pacheco had been paired as part of the Austin school district’s Career Launch program.

“He’s pretty chill,” Pacheco, now an 11th grader, said during an interview at the start of the current school year. “We talk through email when I need help with my college classes.”

That’s exactly the way Career Launch, now in place at four Austin schools and serving a total of more than 1,700 students, is intended to work. If Pacheco and his peers complete the six-year program, they’ll earn a high school diploma, an associate degree, a technical credential, workplace experience, and a guaranteed job or interview in one of the fastest-growing occupational fields in one of the fastest-growing job markets in the country.

That kind of leg up could prove critical in a place like Austin, one of about two dozen “high-growth hubs” identified by the McKinsey Global Institute in its recent report about the future of work.

Such hubs are home to about 44 percent of the United States’ total population, and have generated most of the country’s job growth since the Great Recession of 2007-09, the group found. What’s more, such areas could capture 60 percent of all new U.S. jobs created by 2030. The Austin region alone could potentially add a net total of 335,000 new jobs, many of which will be high-skill and high-wage, McKinsey Global Institute researchers estimated.

But despite the rosy projections, there’s also a big problem, said André Dua, a senior partner with the group.

“In places like Austin, Seattle, New York, and Denver, middle- and high-income jobs are not always going to people who grew up in those places,” Dua said. “Not everyone is benefiting from the economy being vibrant.”

Pacheco, for example, said he’ll be the first in his family to directly benefit from Austin’s tech boom if he completes Career Launch and lands a job at Dell.

Making a place like Austin work for such students has to be an explicit goal of workforce preparation programs, said Craig Shapiro, the district’s associate superintendent for high schools. That means focusing on exposure and relationships as much as academics, he said.

“Companies are finding that there’s a lot of talent in our schools,” Shapiro said. “It’s not that they’re not skilled. It’s having the right connections, having practical job training, and having a champion and mentor.”

Bridgeport, Conn.

Tom Long has an up-close view of the entry points into southwestern Connecticut’s fragile job market.

He sees what’s coming.

“If you go to Applebee’s now, you can order your food at a kiosk,” said Long, a senior vice president for communications at The Workplace, a workforce-development group that helps connect hundreds of young adults with jobs each year. “Looking out at that 10-year horizon, [16-24 year old workers] will need more skills.”

Indeed, the McKinsey Global Institute predicts that automation will have a particularly profound effect on the roughly 15 million younger workers in the U.S. economy. Many start with first jobs in fields such as food services or office administrative support. But the former could lose 5 percent of its jobs by 2030, while the latter could lose 11 percent of its jobs, according to the group’s “midpoint” estimates for how automation might impact different sectors of the labor market.

Such a scenario would mean millions of mostly entry-level jobs lost nationally. Thousands of those jobs would be lost in southwestern Connecticut, where some communities, like Bridgeport, are struggling to provide meaningful job opportunities.

“When those go away, what are the new pathways for young people?” asked Dua.

Michael Testani, acting superintendent of Bridgeport public schools, has been asking the same questions since he took the job last June.

In recent years, the school system had seen some of its efforts around career readiness dwindle, but Testani is eager to revive them.

An existing program at Harding High School connects students to two local health-care facilities where they can achieve nursing certifications alongside their high school diplomas. Some Bassick High School students, meanwhile, participate in an advanced manufacturing program at Housatonic Community College during their senior year of high school. The goal of both partnerships is to help students gain valuable skills and access to well-paying jobs more quickly.

Testani said he’s met in recent months with area institutions like the Discovery Museum about “educational opportunities there that will lead students into the next decade.”

Testani also hopes to see broader acknowledgement of the need for programs geared toward students who plan to go right into the workforce after high school, rather than attending college.

“We can’t just prepare students for the jobs that are trending right now,” he said. “This global economy is moving pretty rapidly. Today’s jobs are not going to be tomorrow’s jobs.”

Other entities, such as for-profit coding bootcamps and training groups such as General Assembly, are also now part of the mix.

The groups will face a huge challenge, said Long from The Workplace: How do you make sure the young people with the fewest skills and the greatest hurdles to overcome still have a shot at accessing opportunity?

Some strategies are unlikely to change. School dropouts will still need basic reading and math skills. Young people will also need to find ways to earn some kind of credential. And career counselors will need to find ways to help young people expand their horizons beyond a job for just right now.

But as the labor market shifts, Long said, adjusting to new challenges will likely require increasing collaboration from a wide range of partners.

“We always think of ourselves as part of a broader ecosystem,” he said.

Dalton, Ga.

In a fast-changing job market, being the “carpet capital of the world” can feel a bit unsteady.

“Our local economy is based on the floor-covering industry. Most of the supply chain is here,” said Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce President Rob Bradham. “But because the products we manufacture are tied directly to the housing market, when that starts to deflate, our economy deflates as well.”

That’s exactly what happened during the Great Recession. Thousands of jobs were lost. Unemployment shot up from about 3 percent to more than 14 percent. The recovery was slow.

Things have started to rebound, Bradham said, but the Dalton area’s labor market will likely remain turbulent for at least another decade. The McKinsey Global Institute predicts slow job growth overall for the region. Making matters worse, a new wave of automation could wipe out 2 of every 5 manufacturing jobs that remain in Dalton. Hispanic workers could be particularly hard hit.

To get ahead of the problem, Dalton’s business and civic leaders recently launched a campaign to diversify the local economy. Local K-12 schools are playing a major role.

One big goal: cultivating more entrepreneurs.

The Dalton school district, for example, now hosts a summer Entrepreneurship and Innovation Camp. It also partnered with a local “innovation accelerator” so that students can join other local inventors in pitching their business ideas to investors and business experts.

The effort has already had one big success: In 2018, Dalton 7th grader Tripp Phillips parlayed an earlier class assignment into a victory at the pitch fest, then an appearance on the reality television show “Shark Tank.” He left with $80,000 to help build his company, which developed a temporary glue to hold Legos together.

School principals are also part of the effort to secure Dalton’s future. At Brookwood Elementary, principal Meleia Bridenstine regularly takes part in meetings of international business leaders held at the Volkswagen plant in nearby Chattanooga, Tenn.

Much of the focus, she said, is on employers’ ravenous demand for workers with good “soft skills,” such as the ability to communicate as part of diverse global teams.

That’s one reason Bridenstine is particularly excited about Brookwood’s recently launched German-language immersion program. More than half of participating students already speak both Spanish and English. Now, they’re expected to be fluent in German by the end of 5th grade, too.

“Parents really want their children to know more than what’s right here in Dalton,” Bridenstine said. “If we start in elementary, they’ll be able to market themselves later.”

Lusk, Wyo.

Each school year, George Mirich faces a difficult choice.

Get the 300 students in his district ready for Niobrara County’s scattered agriculture economy, where growing hay is one of the few relatively reliable private sector jobs? Or bet on computer science and virtual learning, with the idea of supporting students who want to either leave or risk trying to find remote work from employers based in other parts of the country?

“We have to do both,” said Mirich, the superintendent of the 300-student Niobrara County school district. “This is the least populated county in the least populated state in the country. We have to prepare students for whatever opportunities [we can.]”

It’s a familiar dynamic for the 2,000 or so rural counties across the country that are confronting aging populations, high unemployment, and historically low levels of geographic mobility, according to the McKinsey Global Institute.

In areas that the group calls “distressed Americana,” for example, the overall population has declined more than 2 percent since 2010. Most of the jobs lost during the Great Recession haven’t come back. And many of the middle-skill jobs that remain—in industries such as mining, manufacturing, and the energy sector—could be particularly vulnerable to automation.

That’s certainly the case in Niobrara County, where the McKinsey Global Institute forecasts continued job losses and population decline.

The local high school’s efforts include a Future Farmers of America agriculture program, which was revived a few years ago. “They do everything from poultry and sheep up through raising cattle, the actual growing of hay, welding, small-building construction, and learning the day-to-day operations of a ranch,” said Principal Phil Garhart. “In today’s age, the bottom line on a ranch is pretty delicate, so they have to understand all those little details.”

Garhart has also made an effort to boost the technology tools available in his school. All 87 students now get their own Chromebooks. A handful of students take online classes such as drafting, which Niobrara County High doesn’t have the capacity to offer itself.

And the district also partners with the for-profit online education company K12 Inc. to run the Wyoming Virtual Academy, a full-time online school.

But for now, at least, such efforts to leverage technology to prepare Niobrara County students for the larger work world are mostly aspirational.

At Wyoming Virtual, for example, the first-year leadership team acknowledges that the school’s current career-counseling and workforce-preparation efforts lag behind those at many of Wyoming’s brick-and-mortar schools. And full-time cyber schools in general have a poor track record when it comes to both academic performance and financial management.

Still, Shaun McAlmont, K12 Inc. president of career readiness education, said the McKinsey Global Institute is on to something when it says that preparing rural students for remote work is one way communities such as Lusk can gird themselves for an uncertain future.

Though not yet offered at Wyoming Virtual, the company’s “Destinations Career Academies” are now available in 20 of its other full-time online schools. Kids in the program can take online electives in fields such as information technology and health care, often with the chance to earn a certification or other industry credential. They use K12 Inc.'s online platform to work as part of a virtual teams, meeting online with industry professionals, who offer feedback on their projects during remote presentations.

The hope, McAlmont said, is to make sure students in places like Lusk are able to walk through the new career doors that technology is helping to open.

“The biggest opportunity is preparing rural students for virtual and remote work down the road,” McAlmont said. “The program is somewhat nascent right now, but the amount of interest we’ve received is tremendous.”

Contributing Writer Mark Lieberman contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the February 05, 2020 edition of Education Week as How Four Communities Are Facing the Future


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