For the last several decades, our educational system has been carefully molded to usher students from prekindergarten to college. Our current system relies on two assumptions: first, that a college-preparatory curriculum adequately prepares high school graduates for direct entry into the workforce; and second, that a college degree will guarantee a good job. But students, workers, and employers are telling us quite clearly that something is awry. Many employers can’t seem to find enough skilled workers, while recent graduates don’t always feel prepared to take on even entry-level work.
Although the current skills mismatch might feel particularly urgent in a tight labor market, this isn’t a novel concern. We could apply the following summation from the seminal “A Nation at Risk” report to our current anxieties: “More and more young people emerge from high school ready neither for college nor for work. This predicament becomes more acute as the knowledge base continues its rapid expansion, the number of traditional jobs shrinks, and new jobs demand greater sophistication and preparation.”
The only catch, of course, is that “A Nation at Risk” was published 40 years ago, in 1983. But swap out contexts, and the same fundamental fears hold true. Instead of fretting about the United States’ industrial efficiencies being beaten out by those of South Korea, Japan, or Germany, we now worry about China and a world in which technology keeps reinventing how entire sectors of the economy function.
Employers calling attention to an absence of certain skills is not a bad thing. It signals to the nation’s education and policy communities what changes are needed in an ever-evolving labor market and economy. The fear of falling behind is a powerful motivator: The failures of K–12 as described by “A Nation at Risk” spurred on new reforms aimed at improving academic outcomes for all students.
This was a welcome course correction from the pre-“Nation at Risk” world, in which too many students were deemed “not college material” and shunted off onto the vocational education track. But a purely academic system cannot adequately respond to the evolving needs of the labor market.
The current context demands something new. Equalizing college opportunity is a laudable and essential goal. But by pushing work readiness, an equally important goal, into the postsecondary space and beyond, we have left millions of youth and young adults without the ability to compete for good jobs and the ability to withstand fundamental labor market changes in response to changing technological advancements.
The trouble with vocational education, at least as it was back in the day, is that it precluded too many students from realizing their college-going potential. It reinforced existing class structures, pushing lower-income African American and Latino students onto the vocational track or into dying industries.
At the same time, some vocational tracks allowed students to land a decent job immediately after graduating from high school. Today, young people need to complete at least a certificate program—but more often a two- or four-year degree—to do the same kinds of jobs we previously entrusted to high school graduates.
Given all this, it’s hardly a surprise that it is taking young people longer to attain financial self-sufficiency. their first “good job”—one that pays at least $35,000 per year in 2019 dollars—by age 26; the average young person today won’t have a good job until around age 30, according to research from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, which I lead. This means other milestones, like buying a home or starting a family, are getting pushed back, too.
Everyone should be concerned by the elongated pathway from youth to a good job. First, it’s obviously an issue for the young adults who can’t afford to delay a paycheck for the two to four years needed to obtain a postsecondary degree or credential. It’s also a problem for those who are now shackled with student debt acquired in the pursuit of a postsecondary degree.
Second, it means our society is less conducive to human flourishing than it could be. While we have plenty of talent already here in the United States, it’s not being developed in a way that’s particularly responsive to current and future labor force needs.
Our present system leaves a lot to chance—how well students navigate the educational system winds up being dictated more by the socioeconomic bracket they were born into than anything else. The result is not just a failure to cultivate enough homegrown STEM (for science, technology, engineering, and math) talent. It’s also that too many academically able students are not enrolling in or completing college at all.
So, what’s to be done? To be clear, I am not advocating resurrecting pre-1983 vocational education and sending young people off to labor in factories. Instead, I believe we need to reintroduce an emphasis on career readiness in high school curricula, without sacrificing academic preparedness. It’s a delicate balancing act but one that can be done.
The good news is that we already have some of the tools to do this. Vocational education has some fairly enlightened descendants, one being career and technical education. Most assuredly not the shop class of yesteryear, CTE now encompasses a broader spectrum of educational offerings with direct application in the workforce.
The available research indicates that CTE has a positive impact on high school graduation rates and college-enrollment numbers and completion, particularly from two-year degree programs. Early-college high school programs are another way to speed students’ progress toward career readiness, in this case by exposing them to college-level programming.
The challenge is that CTE and early-college programs are not as comprehensively integrated across states, educational institutions, and employers as would be necessary to induce the sort of changes needed. Visions of systemic change in the United States too often run aground against the reality of its fractured educational and employer ecosystem.
We have been struggling for some time with the question of how to get the economy back into the education system. The skills gap exists because the labor market is not static. As the economy evolves, the skills that employers want and expect from workers will naturally change. Add technological advances to the mix, and the frequent disconnect between educational and training outcomes and labor market realities becomes not just understandable but predictable.
Solving the skills shortage will always be a work in progress, but it’s a problem we have the tools to address, if only we can put them more fully to use. The 40th anniversary of “A Nation at Risk” is a good opportunity to collectively address how we might do that, because, frankly, we cannot afford to wait.