College & Workforce Readiness

Teens Feel Ready for College, But Not So Much for Work

By Alyson Klein — September 24, 2019 4 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 surveys 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 an 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.”

‘Practical Connection’ Needed

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 1040-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 noncollege 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 nondegree world, without much of a road map, the kind of road map 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.

Old Strategies, New Jobs

Similarly, a separate report released last week by the RAND Corp., found that the needs of the workforce have transformed dramatically thanks to technological changes, globalization, and demographic shifts. But K-12 schools, postsecondary institutions, and job-training organizations are preparing students for jobs using essentially the same set of strategies they’ve been relying on for decades.

At the same time, employers are struggling to find workers with so-called “21st-century skills” such as information synthesis, creativity, problem-solving, communication, and teamwork. Yet the path forward is not easy for workers looking to upgrade their skills because of automation or shifting consumer demands.

“Employers are saying they can’t find employees with the skills they need, and on the other end, you have workers whose jobs have been made less relevant,” said Melanie Zaber, an associate economist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization.

The blame shouldn’t be all on schools, the RAND report emphasizes. Employers and education and job-training institutions don’t do a great job of systematically sharing information with schools that would allow them to better prepare students for the changing needs of the workforce. Plus, funding for K-12 education isn’t equally distributed and often neglects the areas that need strong pre-career training the most.

What also makes progress difficult is that high school principals rarely get to see how their students are doing years after they leave the classroom, Zaber said. “Letting high school principals see what happens when students leave their doors can help inform policy for where the gaps are, where the barriers are, where students are being let down,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the September 25, 2019 edition of Education Week as Teens Feel Ready for College, But Not So Much for Work

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