It is great to be back in London, one of the world’s greatest cities. Such a beautiful place, so many things to see and do – houses of Parliament, palaces, museums, parks and restaurants. And lots of people – more than 8 million of them who live here.
Think for a moment about those people, and imagine that each one of them represents a job – not just any job, but a vacant position – a job waiting to be filled.
That image creates a frame for what I want to discuss this afternoon – the workforce crisis in the United States. It’s a crisis because there are more than 7.6 million unfilled jobs in the United States, and that number is growing.
That’s a lot of vacancies – and it’s also far more than the 6 million people who are currently looking for work. But that’s only part of the problem. Many of those job seekers are not qualified for the jobs that are available.
There’s the crisis: More jobs than people; not enough skilled people to do those jobs.
America isn’t alone in dealing with this issue. In an IBM survey, one-half of corporate executives in 48 countries cited a lack of appropriately-skilled workers in local labor markets was the single greatest skills challenge. Fully 60% of them said their companies struggle to keep their workforces current.
Another study concluded that, in the world’s advanced economies. 95 million workers lack the skills needed for employment.
This is clearly a global issue. My focus, though, is on the US since that’s where my work is being done. However, I think many of the observations today are applicable almost everywhere.
So, let’s unpack this and talk about how public education is responding, in partnership with the business community to the workforce crisis.
Workforce, Skills Gap
Let’s start with the size of the current U.S. labor force, which in the United States isn’t increasing much at all. There’s only an expected rise of just one-half of one percent a year over the next decade. In America, more than 80% of all counties are experiencing the lowest growth rate since the late 1930s.
The people who seek work today are facing a very different economy just 50 years ago, when 7 of 10 jobs required only a high school diploma.
Of course, today, most jobs require training beyond a traditional 12th grade education.
The Conference Board projects significant shortages of workers for these jobs, which we might describe as “middle skills” jobs.
Given the data, it’s not surprising that many people who are trying to get work aren’t qualified for the openings that exist.
This includes both the technical skills that are the needed to do the job, as well as “soft” people skills.
We can cite many reasons for the soft skills deficit.
One, I think it can be argued, is the dramatic drop in the teenage labor force, which is at an all-time low.
Less than 20 years ago, about one of every two high school students either held or wanted to get a summer or part time job.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it will be just one in four in the next five years.
And, the percentage of teenagers who say they are looking for work has dropped by one-half since the 1990s.
This means there are fewer young people available and looking to fill some of those positions that are vacant right now.
But more importantly, the dramatic decline in the number of teenagers working means they don’t get the experience that comes with a first job, such as interacting with customers, operating office equipment, being a good colleague and, even showing up on time!
So, what are teenagers doing?
Well, nearly 50% of them participate in some form of education activity in July, up from just 10% in 1985. And, summer school enrollment has tripled in the past 20 years.
Now, I represent a national education organization, and I’m certainly not opposed to young people continuing their studies over the summer. What is worth considering is whether that focus should be on acquiring skills as well as college credits.
So, here’s the good news: The emergence of those “middle skill jobs” that require training beyond a high school diploma is opening doors to collaboration between business and education in ways that I have never seen before in my nearly 40 years of working in this field.
This can be an excellent investment of time and effort.
A few years ago, my organization’s research arm, the Center for Public Education conducted a study which found that more than 80% of high school graduates enroll in a two-year or a four-year college within eight years of graduating high school.
Now that’s impressive – until we consider the fact that only a little more than half of them will stay enrolled and earn a degree.
And of those who do graduate with a bachelor’s degree, more than 4 of every 10 will be underemployed.
So, while we can celebrate the fact that more than 80% of high school graduates go on to college in some form, it’s troubling that vast numbers of them never finish and, of those that do, many are not working in the fields they studied, and far too many are saddled with enormous student loans that create a financial burden they will carry for years, even decades.
The focus of the Center for Public Education report was on the high school graduates who don’t follow this path – the ones who never pursue college at all. To our pleasant surprise, we found that five factors could help ensure their career success.
Those students who graduated on-time; passed Algebra II and took an advanced science course; had good grades or at least a 2.5 to 3.0 grade point average; had an occupational concentration; and obtained professional certification or license – would do almost exactly as well as most four-year degree holders economically and have better outcomes than two-year degree holders and all other non-college completers.
The students who accomplished these five things were, by age 26, less likely to be unemployed for more than six months and more likely to: hold a full-time job; have employer-provided health care, supervise others, be paid more per hour and have higher job satisfaction.
This isn’t a binary choice between college and the trades. The career path for most people is not a straight road.
Some will go to college and get a job, some will be trained by the military, others will enter the workforce and maybe go to college later – or any of scores of other combinations.
Acquiring technical skills can be a boon to everyone, college attendees and non-attendees alike. The door to learning should always be open. The young person who becomes certified as a plumber may later become a mechanical engineer; the medical technician may become a surgeon; and a welder may become a teacher. The possibilities are endless, and so should be the opportunities.
The New Approach
Let me brag for a moment: Public schools in America have significantly raised academic standards, are educating a more diverse population, and still are graduating more students than ever before in history.
Said another way, we’ve narrowed the uprights on the goalposts and are kicking more field goals. Still, something was wrong.
The National School Boards Association, my organization, knew the data – our research center made it clear that students who have the proper training, but no college education, could fill many of the available and often well-paying jobs in the modern economy.
Yet, at the same time, we kept hearing about a growing skills gap. Employers clearly weren’t finding enough qualified people for their open positions.
This is a challenge for education everywhere. That IBM study I cited earlier found that only one-half of the global corporate executives surveyed believe secondary schools are preparing students to be productive members of the workforce.
We can’t fix the problems of the world, but we can try to do something where we work, in the United States.
So, we invited the business community in for a conversation: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Manufacturers Association and organizations representing retail, transportation, restaurant, hospitality, energy and health care, as well as the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), and asked them to help answer two questions:
1) What can schools do to address the skills gap?
2) What can we – schools and business – do together?
This was the genesis of the NSBA Commission to Close the Skills Gap, which issued its report earlier this year.
These leading national business organizations spent nearly a year discussing the challenges we face and then prepared recommendations that fell into two main categories.
First, the Commission identified six critical skills that all students should have and be able to demonstrate upon graduating high school.
We gave these a name – “Life Ready Skills” – because they apply to all students for whatever experiences they will have in their lives, not just in the workplace.
By the way, these “people skills” are valued everywhere.
A global survey of employers last year found the most important skills to be 1) problem solving, 2) teamwork, 3) communication, 4) adaptability, and 5) interpersonal skills.
A pretty similar list! So, while the commission didn’t discover anything new, it reaffirmed something very important: and that is, soft skills matter.
The second portion of the commission’s report presented recommendations for school boards, including:
· Industry engagement by creating Business Advisory Councils and conducting annual surveys of local employers to assess how well recent high school graduates are meeting workforce needs.
· Placing an equal focus on career and college readiness, creating a “job ready” high school diploma, and requiring work-based learning as a condition for graduating high school.
· And, professional development for teachers on the importance of Life Ready skills being taught throughout the curriculum and providing opportunities for students to be exposed to careers, including tours of businesses.
Once the report was issued, the business organizations and NSBA agreed to keep working together, to put the recommendations into action.
This ongoing partnership, which NSBA is co-leading with SHRM, has set an ambitious goal of creating 1,000 new business-education partnerships by the end of next year.
We are very pleased to be working with national business organizations in this important effort and are encouraged that our work can be a model of collaboration at the local level.
I also am happy to report that businesses and public schools already are working together to address the skills gap. It’s happening all over the country.
Many of these embody the “academy model” that combines rigorous academic instruction with practical work-based experiences.
Each of these programs are operated with the active engagement of businesses.
And all of them focus on what they call the “4 R’s”:
1) Readiness – meaning students not only need to know content but need to demonstrate that that they know how to apply it to solve problems;
2) Rigor – with challenging courses;
3) Relevance – authentic experiences that are applicable to the real world, and
4) Relationships – small learning communities with active engagement by business partners and the community.
Allow me to cite a few examples.
In Louisville, Kentucky major manufacturers were confronted with a huge shortage of qualified applicants.
GE Appliances had re-shored its operations, and needed to hire literally thousands of workers.
They recognized that they couldn’t simply wait for the right people to show up, so they took the initiative, and worked directly with the local school district to completely change the workforce development system, ensuring access to employees who are work-ready with employability skills, technically adept and academically prepared.
A centerpiece of this effort is the Academies of Louisville. Starting in the 9th grade, students can choose pathways in various sectors.
Businesses are helping to write the curriculum; GE is directly supporting three of them – IT, manufacturing and business/financial services.
This model is being replicated in Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia where GE Appliances will be growing.
In Gwinnett County, Georgia, a major suburban district north of Atlanta, I recently had the opportunity to visit four high schools, all employing the Academy Model.
· Lanier High School has four academies, including a Center for Design and Technology, a STEM program that includes computer science, engineering and programming, and an Academy for Global Business that focuses on marketing and entrepreneurship.
Another school features an Academy for Cybersecurity and requires all senior students to participate in a capstone Senior Experience and Exhibition.
Still another high school has academies for Law, Entrepreneurship and Public service, as well as Fine Arts and Communications.
And, Meadowcreek HS has five academies including for international business, health and hospitality and science, technology and engineering.
Finally, I saw a similar model in San Antonio when I visited the Alamo Academies, another program that directly links business with preparing high school students for careers.
Here, the academies offer programs of study in Advanced Technology & Manufacturing, Diesel Technology, IT & Security, Health Professions, and Aerospace.
The juniors and seniors enroll in a two-year program of rigorous college coursework resulting in industry and academic certificates, and they participate in paid internships with area employers.
Take a look at this! Southwest Airlines donated a 737 engine for students to work on as part of their studies.
Isn’t that fantastic! And there are so many other examples across the country.
What does all this mean? I think there are a few important lessons, and ideas for action, to be drawn from these experiences:
The first relates directly to the theme of your program today. We know from experience that when business leaders are partners with schools – Most Valued Partners – great things can happen. This includes contributing money and assets (like jet engines!), but even more importantly, providing the time and talent of key employees helping to develop the curriculum, working directly with students and teachers, and providing support. Some business partners have a ubiquitous presence in the schools, including even having offices there. Incidentally, this kind of engagement is good for students and business. That IBM global study I mentioned earlier found that nearly 7 of 10 “outperforming companies” (based on revenue growth and operating efficiency) collaborated with ecosystem partners, versus less than 50% for lower performing companies.
Young people need to be made aware of career opportunities early – well before high school. They need to see how their natural talents and interests can be translated into jobs they would love. How can a child even aspire to a job he or she doesn’t even know exists? Having this information early matters, since it will help students understand the courses they need to take not only to obtain a high school diploma but the relevant certifications that can provide access to the jobs they want.
We need to smash some stereotypes. The National Association of Manufacturers, NAM, says one of the biggest challenges to attracting people to manufacturing is the image that it is “dirty, dark and dangerous” – their words – even though most plants are clean, highly automated and very safe. Other industries are victims of similar false impressions that can best be overcome simply by getting kids and their families to see them.
Students aren’t the only ones who need to know about career options and what it takes to get those jobs. Teachers, counselors and school administrators need to know too, so that they can help students learn and prepare.
And business needs to lend its political capital to support adequate funding of public schools, many of which never fully recovered from budget cuts following the Great Recession. These reductions hurt everyone, but especially districts that rely most heavily on state aid – the less wealthy districts with the least ability to generate funds on their own. Far too many children in public schools today live in poverty. We need to be serious about giving every child a great education, regardless of where they live. Educational equity is directly linked to efforts to prepare students for life after school, including the workforce.
Especially importantly for this session, I suggest you view students as part of your supply chains. Human capital is the most valuable resource for almost every organization. Ensuring that the people who will be coming onto your teams are qualified and prepared to contribute to your company’s success may be the most important investment of time you can make.
This is a global challenge. Our economies, political structures and education systems may vary, but collaborating to enhance workers’ skills is good for everyone – students, employees and business.
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