Career & Workplace

Washington voters don't think schools prepare kids for careers. The state is trying to change that.


Four out of five voters say Washington state’s high schools and colleges are failing to teach students real-world skills, or truly prepare them for the workplace, according to a recent state poll.

To try better connect students with jobs, the state has recently launched a public-private initiative called Career Connect Washington that aims to link high school and college classes to jobs. One of the ideas: Allowing high-school students to leave campus for paid  internships at local businesses and in exchange, receive high-school credit.

Too many people in their teens and twenties spend “a lost decade,” trying to figure out what kind of job they want, and how to acquire the training and education they need to get it, said Gov. Jay Inslee, one of the initiative’s biggest cheerleaders.

“We have a lot of students who struggle the first decade out of high school … who have been adrift for 10 years,” Inslee said during a news conference in Renton last week. “We want to seize those opportunities when they’re 16 and 18.”

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The initiative, which started last year, is moving into high gear even as many other states are also trying to revive career education — an idea that fell out of favor in the 1980s because it often shortchanged disadvantaged students by discouraging them from rigorous college prep courses. Its supporters say it’s aimed at all students, including the college-bound, and it won’t repeat the old mistakes of “tracking” low-income and minority students into vocational classes that lead to low-wage jobs.

Linking education to the world of work is a hot idea across the nation, and states are becoming laboratories for different ways to do it. Colorado, for example, has started a youth-apprenticeship program, similar to what Washington is doing, called CareerWise. A recent state auditor’s report praised a system in Ohio, where students learn vocational skills that earn both high school and community college credit.

Inslee spoke during a gathering of state education and political leaders at Kaiser Permanente Washington’s Renton headquarters, chosen for the meeting because many health-care jobs require training beyond high school and pay well, but not all require a four-year college degree.

The idea of offering paid, supervised work that’s aligned to classroom learning has bipartisan appeal. It’s also getting support from the business and labor leaders who attended the Renton meeting — executives from Boeing, Microsoft and the Spokane energy company Avista, and the Washington State Labor Council.

But to make this a success, the Legislature may have to tweak the state’s graduation requirements, and provide more money for career counseling, said state Superintendent Chris Reykdal. Schools will have to accept different forms of credit — for example, a high school might award math credit for a student who leaves campus to work on framing a house, putting applied geometry skills to work. And colleges will need to give college credit for returning adult students who learned skills on the job, Reykdal said.

The program will also require a big buy-in from businesses, which must create paid internships and apprenticeships for students in their teens and 20s. “We need to develop a culture where businesses believe this is for everybody’s benefit,” Inslee said.

The effort is led by Maud Daudon, former president of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and current chair of the Washington Student Achievement Council, a state agency that oversees higher education policy. Career Connect funded a poll of 835 likely Washington voters this fall; 82 percent said they agreed that schools are not doing enough to teach real-world skills, or prepare students for the real world.

Washington “has been a leader in making connections between education and the labor markets,” said Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

How did we get to this point? Over the last few decades, Carnevale said, employers have insisted that entry-level applicants have extensive qualifications and training. At the same time, he said, manufacturing and other blue-collar jobs that used to pay a good wage for workers with only a high-school diploma have largely collapsed.

Meanwhile, starting in the 1980s, many high schools trimmed or eliminated vocational-education classes, and ramped up academic requirements for graduation, leaving little room on a student’s schedule for anything else.

The result: A new economy with fewer job opportunities for young people to build up work experience, Carnevale said.

He thinks boosting academic requirements was a good thing. It helped dilute the power of a system of “tracking” that placed low-income and minority students in classes that led to low-skill, low-pay jobs, while middle- and upper-class students were tracked into prep classes that led to college. But it also went too far, promoting the idea that every student needed to go to college and get a bachelor’s degree, he said.

It’s estimated that 740,000 new job openings will exist in Washington in the next five years — many created by a wave of retiring baby boomers leaving high-paying positions. Although Washington is an incubator of high-pay, high-skill jobs, research shows many of those jobs are going to people who move here from elsewhere, and not the students who graduate from Washington’s public K-12 schools.

Last year, Inslee and other business leaders went to Switzerland to see how the Swiss incorporate apprenticeships that often start in high school. Colorado is also using that model.

Carnevale said Switzerland’s model works, but it comes at a cost — 30 percent of the wages paid to apprentices are picked up by the government. That’s not on the table in Washington.

With Career Connect Washington, students will begin learning about careers in elementary or middle school, prepare for those careers in high school and continue their training after graduation. Elements of the initiative are already in place: Career Connect estimates there are 20,000 young people under the age of 30 who complete programs each year that fulfill at least some of those goals.

That includes about 1,000 under age 30 who finish registered apprenticeships; 3,000 who participate in career and technical education (CTE) programs, high school skills centers and career academies; and 16,000 college students who complete degrees or certificates that require practicums and work-based learning.

One example: A youth-apprenticeship program started by the aerospace industry in 2017. This year, 36 high-school juniors in eight school districts are working part time at aerospace companies around the state, while also taking high school and college-level classes and earning credit. The students are also earning a paycheck, said Aaron Ferrell, marketing communications manager for the Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee.

Dauden said that while there are some good efforts underway, many of the programs fail to connect to each other. Under Career Connect, the state would create regional networks to develop internships and share resources.

“We are blowing up a myth today — if your kid doesn’t go to (get) a four-year degree, you’re a failure,” Inslee said.

Carnevale thinks the turnaround to apprenticeships and other experiences linked to work is a smart development — but not if it involves a return to “tracking” students from low-income families into low-wage jobs. Ultimately, he thinks, a publicly-funded education will involve 14 years of schooling, rather than 12.

“Everybody’s headed this way, and I think it’s productive,” Carnevale said. “The fact that your governor’s doing this, and not something else, is very telling.”

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