Guest Opinions

Why providing students access to career pathways is imperative to economic growth

Boise robotics company VersaBuilt is competing with other manufacturing companies in the area for graduates of the College of Western Idaho’s machining program.
Boise robotics company VersaBuilt is competing with other manufacturing companies in the area for graduates of the College of Western Idaho’s machining program.

Due to lower taxes and regulation reform, the United States has seen great economic benefits: record job growth, higher wages and increases in gross domestic product. Yet with all this good economic news, there is still a nagging issue that America cannot ignore and it involves access to career pathways.

Even with unemployment at historic lows, our country has more job openings than ever before. The reason? The largest number of open positions and the fastest-growing job sectors are those that require skills and talents that many job seekers lack. And it’s not getting better: Next year, it is expected that the U.S. will fall short by over 5 million workers with the skills and talents necessary to fill the available high-paying jobs.

Across the country, high school graduation rates are at an all-time high, GPA’s have increased, and scores on college entrance exams are up. This is all great news, yet many students that graduate from high school and college can’t find quality careers because they lack marketable skills. In other words, our schools are graduating students that may be highly educated but lack the skills the marketplace needs or demands.

Ten years ago, we coined the phrase “college and career ready” as the goal for all high school graduates. While the phrase sounded good and made sense, it unfortunately sent the message that there is a difference between college and career. We should have focused on “career ready” and recognized that college is not the goal but a path to some careers (but not all).

Today, most high-paying careers require more than a high school diploma — but many do not require an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. Instead, certificates, credentials and other evidence of mastery are the gateway to many of these high paying jobs in areas like health care and science, technology, engineering and math, construction, manufacturing and even food service and the arts.

Recent efforts have shown real promise. Schools across the country are offering students “career pathways” — a series of aligned courses that lead to marketable credentials, certificates or degrees in careers that are high-skill, high-pay and are in demand. Also, many states are encouraging schools to offer more career pathways by providing a premium level of funding for students who enter and/or complete career pathways or apprenticeships.

What we’ve discovered is that given the opportunity to pursue learning that is relevant to life after high school, more students are engaging in their learning pathway and are choosing more rigorous courses that focus on mastering the skills and talents the marketplace demands. These also happen to lead to high-paying careers — talk about a win/win scenario.

Some may be thinking, “Why is this important to me? My children (or grandchildren) are doing well in school and are going to college.” Or some may not even have children. Here is why this is important to all of us, regardless of our age or station in life. Consider a country where a majority of the working-age adults lack the skills, talents and knowledge the job market demands. Imagine an environment where business growth is not limited by demand for one’s product but by lack of a skilled workforce. This could mean a nation where over half of its citizens are dependent on government for basic needs like food, clothing and housing. Obviously, this scenario affects the prosperity of every citizen and household.

In this environment, government subsidies increase, adding to the ever-growing national deficit and debt. The combination of a ballooning dependent working class and exploding deficits and debt will limit the prosperity of the current generation and strangle the opportunities of the next. No one will be immune: Everyone’s quality of life will be affected.

The reality is that today, as never before, there is an inseparable link between a high-quality, relevant education system and a robust economy. It takes a robust economy to provide the tax base necessary to fund a world-class education system. Conversely, you must have an education system that is graduating students with the skills and talents necessary to meet the demands of a growing economy. Neglect one, and eventually the other one suffers.

Now more than ever it is critical that students graduate from school prepared to thrive in the real world where they will live and work as adults. Giving all students access to career pathways made up of rigorous, relevant courses that lead to rewarding careers is an important and necessary step in the right direction.

Tom Luna is the former Idaho state superintendent of public instruction and past national president of the Council of Chief State School Officers. You can contact him at Tom@tomluna.com.
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