Earn good grades, attend college and graduate with a four-year degree. This is the path high school students are often told they must take to find a fulfilling, well-paying job. Yet for nearly two-thirds of adults in the U.S. workforce, a college degree is not a possibility.
Certainly, college should be an option for anyone who wishes to attend. But for many reasons, a degree cannot continue to be the gate between young talent and a prosperous future. It still surprises most to learn that an increasingly large segment of the nation’s most influential companies, including Tesla, Netflix and Google, do not require employees to have a bachelor’s degree. New employees can demonstrate their knowledge and ultimate value to companies using their work product, peer endorsement and skill-based credentials.
Our current education system prioritizes college preparation, and the way we measure student success through letter grades and standardized testing reflects that priority. For years, companies have sought talent based on skills such as critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving, and collaboration — but most high schools are not focused on preparing students to meet these expectations. We have neglected to measure how prepared students are for the workforce, particularly the in-demand skills employers seek. At a time when entry-level candidates face rising unemployment rates and an increasingly specialized job market, it’s now more important than ever for school leaders to create a learning environment that doesn’t solely introduce students to potential careers, but actively engages them in developing the skills needed to contribute and succeed in our workforce.
Michael Fischer, vice president of global talent management at Sysco, asks, “What should be done at the local, state, and federal levels to support and enable schools to develop students — especially those from under-invested in communities — to enter the workplace with the skills to be successful?” The answer, from someone who has spent hundreds of hours considering this question as a director of work-based learning programs, starts with enabling schools to design curriculums that go beyond a one-size-fits-all model and instead create meaningful opportunities for students to explore and prepare for future careers.
This fall, NAF, a national education nonprofit that works to ensure high school students are college, career, and future-ready, will begin piloting a new approach to help students and educators plan and measure the impact of activities that accomplish this goal. NAF will implement tools and tracking mechanisms that measure three core components of workforce preparation — exposure to new career paths, skills development and network-building — in addition to traditional academic requirements. Consider a student who tours a pharmacy and is inspired to become a pharmacy technician. That student’s curriculum should include technical skill-building, such as learning to manage data sets and use medical software, as well as transferable client service skills applicable to any career field. The student would then track their own progress in accomplishing the steps outlined in their action plan, and their educator would use this information to better target the student’s skill development and help them to navigate their career path moving forward.
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Incorporating career preparation and network-building opportunities into the high school experience helps level the playing field for students of all backgrounds who may not have connections that give them an advantage in the workforce later in life. Take Cristian Ponce, a recent graduate of NAF’s Academy of Engineering at Charlotte Engineering Early College. Ponce was able to put the confidence and networking skills he developed through NAF into practice on a flight home from a recent NAF conference. He noticed the woman sitting next to him was working on a UNC-Charlotte presentation and introduced himself, learning she was a professor at the university. Ponce shared his goal to pursue computer science research there and as a result, the professor invited him to meet with her on campus. The following year, Ponce joined her as a co-author on a virtual reality research project.
Instead of relying solely on traditional letter grades, one-size-fits-all curricula, and standardized testing, which we know are not thorough enough to assess all that matters in a post-pandemic workforce, we should instead look at how well a student has developed a unique skillset and established professional connections in high school. This shift will encourage the kind of learning that inspires students to pursue topics they are passionate about and gives them a head start in building the skills to thrive in any career they choose.
Brooke Rice leads the charge for implementing high-quality work-based learning experiences for high school students across the country as the Senior Director of Work-Based Learning at NAF. Throughout her career, she has worked at the local, state and national levels to develop a skilled and diverse talent pipeline by ensuring opportunities for all students to realize their full potential.