Is work-based learning critical to country’s future? In a word, yes.
While it’s been widely reported that the United States’ unemployment rate is low, you may be missing the subtext. That’s because 7.5 million men – all in the prime of their working lives, defined as between the ages of 25 and 54 – are neither employed nor in the education system. That’s the highest it’s been since 1940, when the Great Depression was still in full force.
It’s not for lack of good-paying jobs. Indeed, there are 6 million of them going unfilled today.
The problem? A quickly evolving workplace that requires equally evolving skills – something these men lack. And when good-paying jobs go unfilled, it’s the industry’s imperative to look elsewhere, whether it is outsourcing the work to another country or installing technology to take a worker’s place.
It’s not just a drag on the U.S. economy, but it could create a serious downturn in federal and state tax receipts.
That’s according to Joseph Fuller, a Harvard business professor and business consultant. Fuller, who was in Des Moines speaking at the Future Ready Learning Conference, said it is well past time to get schools and business on the same page.
“If you say ‘you have to go to college,’ are you telling two thirds of our kids who don’t go to college that they are losers?” he said. “At graduation, we celebrate the captain of the football team or the valedictorian, but we don’t have an award for outstanding representative of a work-based learning program.
“I think a serious commitment to work-based learning is, arguably, the single most important initiative a state can take.”
Changing that mindset starts with changing the curriculum.
“We need to revisit what we think about the curriculum,” Fuller said. “The curriculum today would be highly recognizable to a teacher or principal in 1960.”
The jobs-worker mismatch didn’t happen overnight.
“The development in the labor market in the U.S. and the various demographic trends – aging of the population and the high female workforce participation rate – when combined creates a very high dynamism in terms of what skills are needed, in which evolving skills are needed more than ever,” Fuller said. “We have work to do in equipping people to be career ready and to engage populations that have been more on the margins of employability.”
It’s not the low-paying jobs that are being affected. That’s because it’s cheaper for industries that employ such workers to continue paying the lower wages. However, it’s the middle-income jobs that, when left unfilled, are replaced by technology or overseas workers.
“If you think of a busboy in a restaurant, he could be replaced by a conveyor belt,” Fuller said. “But that’s a lot of capital investment. I’m not going to put in million-dollar equipment to replace low-skilled workers. However, if you’re talking about jobs that pay well, then it becomes a different story.”
All of this underscores the need for evolving curriculums to ensure that schools are tapping into all potential talent, specifically as it relates to Career Technical Training and Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) coursework.
Simply offering the coursework, however, isn’t sufficient.
“How we teach becomes really important,” Fuller said. “When you talk to employers about why young workers fail, they frequently say they don’t have enough background in STEM. That’s part of it.
“But employers also will say that the No. 1 reason people lose jobs is that they lack the essential skills or some would say soft skills. Things like communications, ability to work in groups, attention to detail and attention to proper etiquette, ability to interact with a stranger. If you look at the evolution of jobs in the U.S., social skills is one of the most important. For instance, it means being able to meet with a stranger and be empathetic. If I have a customer who is complaining, I need to be able to effectively work with that customer.”
Real-world scenarios frequently are absent in a classroom.
“An employer will say ‘that kid can’t describe in an email what happened with a customer interaction,’” Fuller said. “Put that back in the classroom. How often in biology do we say ’Joe, we have been talking about symbiosis, tell us what that means.’ If that does happen, it is usually a teacher catching a student goofing off. It is not a purposeful part of the lesson. If you don’t start teaching in ninth grade that kids need to be able to describe what they are learning, you could be in trouble.”
Fuller said there are multiple ways real-world scenarios can be taught in the classroom, such as having students write a synopsis of what they have been learning.
“A teacher could say, ‘OK, I want to get a sense of what you’re learning, so give me a written statement about what symbiosis is. Write it so that your kid brother can understand. I’m not going to grade this.’”
Another opportunity would be to break students into small groups where they have 10 minutes to agree upon a definition.
“Purposefully do a cross section of kids,” Fuller said. “Then they have to sit there and agree with people they don’t know or don’t get along with. It is unfamiliar just like a work setting.”
For the vast majority of students in this country, a work-based learning environment is critical to strong outcomes.
“In school, how many students think, ‘what the heck am I doing here?’” Fuller said. “There are pathways programs where local employers work with the school district where some of the kids are matched with potential careers based on aptitude and interest. They are doing real work while being supervised, where they have a chance to be in a workplace. Why is that important? Go back to the soft skills. They are watching interactions in the place. They see how it all comes together. They also learn etiquette, such as ‘I know I need to be here at 2 p.m., not 2:15. I know what I need to wear.’ Students pick up on all of that.”
In schools, Fuller said the curriculum should be re-examined to see if it truly meets the needs of students – and their futures.
“An example is, what is the progression for high-level math in school?” Fuller said. “The honors senior math is calculus. The only time I used calculus in my life was to help my kids, or for me to take a college entrance exam. But I was never going to be a physicist. The terminal honors math class should be statistics because I use them every day of my life.”
By ramping up work-based learning programs and rethinking the fundamentals of a curriculum, schools can go a long way to meeting future needs of their students and U.S. businesses.
“We need to be very explicit about using our classroom time to inculcate these essential skills,” Fuller said. “These are practical things within our grasp.”