Career Pathways: Bridging the Opportunity Gap

Bridging the Opportunity Gap

08/24/2015  |  By James E. “Gene” Bottoms, Ed.D.

(This is part one of a two part series.)

The Southern Regional Education Board’s Commission on Career and Technical Education (CTE) spent a year grappling with a problem that is not unique to the SREB region, but is shared by states across the country. That is, for too many of our young people, high school — the last publicly funded opportunity many have to earn a credential of value in the marketplace — is a bridge to nowhere.

Labor market economists estimate that by 2020, about two-thirds of all jobs in this country will require some form of postsecondary education, meaning a certificate, a credential or a degree at the associate level or higher.

Too few students are graduating from high school with the academic, technical and workplace skills they need to earn postsecondary credentials and secure jobs that pay a family-sustaining wage in the career fields that matter to our state and regional economies.

Labor market economists estimate that by 2020, about two-thirds of all jobs in this country will require some form of postsecondary education, meaning a certificate, a credential or a degree at the associate level or higher. Many of these jobs — sometimes referred to as “middle-skill jobs” — pay between $35,000 and $75,000 a year and can be found in such diverse areas as advanced manufacturing, energy, health care, information technology, and the broad field of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). The individuals who secure them must have job- and industry-specific technical, technological and work-ready employability skills. But they also must be “lifelong learners” — equipped with the foundational literacy, math and science knowledge and skills needed to continually “reskill” and adapt to the changing needs of the 21st century workplace.

American high schools are not preparing lifelong learners.

Although 80 percent of students now graduate on time from high school, not enough are graduating with the academic, technical and employability skills they need to earn postsecondary credentials and secure good jobs. Most states are still a very long way from meeting SREB’s goal that 80 percent or more of all students should graduate ready for college and careers. In fact, SREB’s analyses of educational attainment data suggest that at least half of all students entering ninth grade will fail to earn a credible postsecondary credential or degree by their mid 20s.

Overall, SREB’s analyses of educational and labor market data suggest that the bridge from high school to postsecondary attainment and career opportunities is broken.

Too many young adults are being left behind in the transition from high school to college and well-paying jobs. Too many spend their 20s underemployed or unemployed before finally enrolling in community and technical colleges when they are nearly 30.

We must do better.

The Commission’s final report, “Credentials for All: An Imperative for SREB States,” provides a strong vision of what American high schools must become if our states are to meet the bold goal of doubling the number of young adults who earn a credible postsecondary credential by their mid 20s over the next decade. Such credentials must be driven by labor market demand and offer value to the students who earn them, to the employers who hire them and to our economy.

“Credentials for All” gives states a set of eight actions they can take to build career pathways that connect the classroom with the workplace and prepare students to succeed in postsecondary education and 21st-century careers. Career pathways can help states transform their educational systems, increase credential and degree attainment and ensure their future economic security. They can also help states:

  • Increase college- and career-readiness rates
  • Raise graduation rates in all high schools
  • Expand work-based learning experiences for high school and postsecondary students
  • Increase postsecondary enrollment, retention and completion of credentials and degrees
  • Help more young adults secure good-paying jobs in high-demand career fields

The report’s first and most important action describes the five essential elements of career pathways that build bridges from high school to postsecondary education and good jobs. High-quality career pathways:

Combine college-ready academics and challenging, project-based technical studies.

American high schools must focus on more than just academics if they are to raise graduation rates and prepare more students for success after graduation. Career pathways empower high schools to improve the quality of their CTE by blending it with a college-ready academic core that is tailored to meet students’ career and postsecondary goals. Rigorous, project-based assignments are critical to this element of career pathways. Such assignments may take weeks to complete and require students to apply a range of academic, technical, technological, cognitive and workplace skills to solve real-world problems. Such assignments are the opposite of the old 1970s “drill sheet” approach to instruction because in a project-based approach, teachers empower students to take ownership of their learning. And in SREB’s “Advanced Career” pathways, local business partners are involved in evaluating and judging student projects.

Align secondary, postsecondary and workplace learning.

Career pathways introduce students to what it’s really like to study on a postsecondary campus and safely explore potential jobs under the guidance of caring adults. Many states already have dual enrollment programs that allow high school students to earn college credits that will save them money and shorten their time to a credential, certificate or degree. North Carolina’s Career and College Promise program, highlighted in the report, offers a good example of a structured dual enrollment system that eliminates unnecessary course taking and leads to postsecondary programs in the state’s high-demand fields.

Structured, progressively intensive work-based learning experiences like job shadowing, paid and unpaid internships, co-ops and the like offer a powerful means of socializing students into the world of work. For students from low-income families and communities, such experiences may be their only chance to explore careers. Recent Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll results show that the majority of American parents want their children to have career-related experiences like these in school.

Work-based learning is crucial because students gain motivation and hope for the future when they can see what they can become. Young people don’t just need the motivation to attend college, but also an end goal — a career goal — to sustain them in their studies. Business thus has a major role to play in helping students form goals and plans for the future. As “Credentials for All” describes, states need to explore ways to incentivize and protect the employers who offer work-based learning to high school and postsecondary students. We already incentivize businesses to locate in our states, but we must also encourage them to help develop a prepared workforce. Tax credits are just one form of incentive that states can consider. States also need to allow districts and schools to adopt flexible schedules that permit students to engage in work-based learning.

Engage students in career advisement and exploration.

Strong career guidance systems show students the many routes to further education and fulfilling careers. Commission members believe that middle schools and high schools must create challenging pathways that prepare students for a full range of postsecondary options — not just four-year institutions, but also community and technical colleges, technology centers, and work-based learn-and-earn programs. Credentials for All shows states how to create curriculum-based teacher advisement systems in which teachers design planned lessons that help students understand their career interests, plan their courses and identify a career focus for their postsecondary studies. In this kind of model, career and college advisement is the shared responsibility of many adults both inside the school and outside the school.

Give high school students a jump on advanced industry and postsecondary credentials.

The bold goals laid out in Credentials for All will require states to blur the lines between secondary and postsecondary education and the workplace. States must offer career pathways in settings that give students a jump-start on earning an advanced industry or postsecondary credential. Such settings might include career academies located within comprehensive high schools; early advanced credential programs located in shared-time technology centers or full-time technical high schools; early college high schools, in which students can earn a diploma while pursuing a postsecondary certificate, credential or associate degree; and innovative online, blended or competency-based programs.

Offer students clear roadmaps to the credentials and degrees they need to secure good jobs in high-demand career fields.

Career pathways solve the “bridge to nowhere” problem by offering students clear, easy-to-follow roadmaps that lead to advanced industry and postsecondary credentials and degrees and good jobs in the career fields that matter to the economic future of their states. Achieving this will require states to develop new pathways, adopt nationally recognized pathways or redesign existing pathways to meet postsecondary and industry standards. State career pathway councils that include secondary, postsecondary, workforce development and employer partners can help guide the development of these pathways.

In my second article for SEEN Magazine, “Bridging the Opportunity Gap: Strong Policies and Powerful Practices to Support Career Pathways,” I’ll describe the other actions states can take to support pathways. In the meantime, to learn more about Credentials for All and get involved in SREB’s efforts to extend career pathway learning opportunities to more students, please contact me at [email protected].

James E. “Gene” Bottoms, Ed.D., is Senior Vice President of the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta, Georgia.
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