What’s Really Better: Workforce Training or Four-Year College?

By Stuart Udell

Graduation season is upon us. Corporate recruiters will soon be flooded with resumes from eager young people looking to land their first jobs. But their job hunt may take a while. That’s because more than half of U.S. employers surveyed say they are struggling to find qualified applicants to fill the positions they have open, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. Incredibly, by 2020 there will be 55 million job openings, according to Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce.

However, the U.S. will fall short, by 5 million, of the number of workers we will need with post-secondary educations. Our nation’s persistent skills gap, or the mismatch between employers’ needs for skilled talent and the skills possessed by the available workforce, has a direct effect on the U.S. economy. Reduced productivity from unfilled jobs resulted in almost $160 billion in lost revenue in 2014, according to Indeed.com.

A workforce of high school graduates armed with relevant skills and credentials is critical for 21st-century competitiveness. Yet, as I’ve learned through my work on the Board of the National Dropout Prevention Center (NDPC) for the past 14 years, remarkably, nearly one in four high school students in America fails to graduate on time. Interestingly, more than 80 percent of high school dropouts surveyed say relevant, real-world learning opportunities would have kept them in school.

Traditional vocational education of yesteryear, in classes like woodworking and metal shop, often taught skills for jobs not requiring a high school diploma. But today, Career Technical Education (CTE) delivers a vastly different set of pathways for students that lead to high school graduation and meaningful middle-class, 21st-century jobs. In fact, CTE is one of the NDPC’s fifteen research-based strategies to reduce dropouts and increase graduation rates. Fortunately, our nation is seeing a renewed push toward enhancing existing CTE models and establishing new ones focused on emerging fields and technologies.

This begs the provocative yet pertinent question, how important “really is” a four-year college degree for both young job seekers and companies looking to fill hot jobs? Five million more students attended college in 2016 versus 2000, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Will this upward trend in four-year college attendance really serve to solve our nation’s skills gap problem and ensure today’s students are workforce-trained?

New findings by Edge Research show a majority of parents surveyed are skeptical. In fact, parents surveyed have a strong preference these days for experiential, career-focused learning opportunities for their children over traditional forms of education. For example, more than three times as many parents, when asked, said that two years of work experience is more valuable than a four-year, liberal arts degree!

K12’s public school partnership business, Fuel Education (FuelEd) works with more than 2,000 school districts in all 50 states and offers a suite of CTE programs. Whether students seek to launch a career following high school graduation or pursue postsecondary studies, these online and blended options provide a valuable first step in “stackable” job training. In developing the curriculum, we carefully analyzed workforce needs to create 24 specific learning pathways featuring 115 course options for students to obtain the skills and explore pursuing certifications valuable for high-demand occupations – all before high school graduation.

These Career Readiness Pathways provide an innovative approach to college and career readiness in six clusters: Agriculture, Business Management and Administration, Health Science, Hospitality and Tourism, Information Technology, and Manufacturing. Examples of certifications that can be eventually earned include the Manufacturing Skill Standards Council (MSSC) Certified Production Technician Certification, the Adobe® Certified Associate (ACA) Certification, Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) and Pharmacy Technician certifications.

“We have local demand for highly-skilled workers in the Ohio Valley,” said Dr. Ron Iarussi, Superintendent of Ohio’s Mahoning County Educational Service Center, now offering Career Readiness Pathways in seven of its 20 member districts. “Students who want to enter the workforce after high school are much more marketable if they have a professional credential.”

“Implementation was easy,” said Andrew Velchek, Director of Technology at the Mahoning County Education Service Center. “The online format also makes it ideal for students to fit the coursework into their busy schedules.”

In addition to online and blended learning solutions for school districts, K12 operates a half-dozen highly-innovative managed career academies, specifically designed to bridge local skills gaps. In 2016, we opened Destinations Career Academy of Wisconsin (DCAWI), the state’s first-ever CTE-focused online high school. This ground-breaking school was actually launched in partnership with the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139 (heavy equipment operators) and Fox Valley Technical College. Students have the opportunity to earn technical and specialty trade credentials, as well as college credits, that well-position them for industry certification and possible apprenticeships.

According to Terry McGowan, President of the Operating Engineers, “These students learn what is expected of them in the skilled trades within a virtual setting. This will help meet our state’s critical workforce development needs and prepare our young people with the knowledge and training necessary to access the many available, high-paying technical jobs that help our state grow.”

K12 also launched Destinations Academies or programs in Nevada, Idaho, Colorado, Utah, South Carolina and through our K12 International Academy. Students even have the opportunity join a local SkillsUSA chapter. Our strategic partnership with the largest CTE organization in the country enables students to take courses outside of the K12 course catalog and earn scholarships with SkillsUSA.

For our nation’s economy to thrive, it is necessary for the perception and delivery of Career Technical Education to be reimagined. High-quality, flexible and engaging CTE programs answer the call from employers across the nation to better prepare students to work in today’s complex global marketplace. Perhaps Mike Rowe, former host of the popular television show “Dirty Jobs,” said it best when he addressed Congress on career preparedness earlier this year.

“The skills gap will never close…if we keep telling people a four-year degree is their only hope of being successful,” said Rowe. “We need an educational system that re-embraces and reaffirms the importance of the vocational arts.”

As educators, business leaders and community partners, let’s support students by identifying engaging and relevant learning opportunities that deliver real-world training with the schedule flexibility today’s young people demand. Working collaboratively, we can show students there is more than one path toward a successful future and do our part toward ensuring a vibrant national economy.

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Stuart Udell is CEO of K12 Inc. Follow them on Twitter: @K12Learn

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