Matching Career-Readiness with Needs of the Workforce

WASHINGTON, D.C.—When GE is looking for employees to fill low-wage, low-skilled jobs, it gets a lot of applications. When it’s looking for engineers to fill openings, GE might get 100 applications, and only two or three might meet the requirements on paper.

“We’re not getting the individuals coming in with the appropriate skills we need,” said Kelli Wells, executive director for education for the GE Foundation. “If we can’t get those folks inside the U.S., there’s ways to bring them from outside the U.S. But we want to go into a community where we can meet the demands of the workforce of tomorrow.”

That’s a goal of CSG’s State Pathways to Prosperity initiative, headed by the 2014 chair, Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris.

“We’ve chosen this initiative not because it’s unique, but because it’s one of hundreds of programs underway,” Norris said June 21 during the 2014 CSG Leadership Forum.

Norris sees the CSG effort as a clearinghouse for state policymakers to leverage the work being done in the field.

Wells was part of a panel discussion focused on matching career-readiness with the needs of the workforce.

In visiting school districts across the country, Wells said she learned that many high school students don’t know what they need to take to fill those high-tech jobs.

“We talk the talk but we’re not putting into practice what we need to do for students,” Wells said. “What do students need? How do we help them to be successful?”

But it’s not just a K-12 issue, Wells and other panelists said. Postsecondary education and workforce development also must play a part.

Jennifer Zinth, who manages the Education Commission of the States’ High School Policy Center, said the postsecondary component hinges on three issues—access, alignment to workforce and funding.

“You can’t have any of these without the other,” she said.

Kate Kreamer, associate executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium, said states have been active in addressing career technical education needs, but not necessarily in a good way.

Some states, she said, have built a separate track or endorsements, but those often have lower requirements than for regular college-ready education.

Some states, however, value the additional experiences in career technical education and are building flexibility for those courses, Kreamer said. A competency-based system, for instance, moves away from seat time and toward students demonstrating competency.

“It’s really any place, any pace,” she said. “That has clear implications for breaking down unnecessary divides between academic and workforce.”

Wells said it’s not about creating schools or having a feeder pattern into a community college. It’s often about changing a mindset.

“When you look at countries doing this really well—Canada, Germany, Finland—they’ve really created a level of prestige,” she said.

Wells said it’s not something schools can do individually. Instead, she said, it must be changed at the state and national level. But she said it’s important for educators to understand what 21st century jobs are and what students need to know, whether it’s students graduating from high school or those in the workforce who need retraining.

“You need to really build out a comprehensive system that connects those dots … have on and off ramps so people can come into the system wherever they are,” said Kreamer.

Zinth said some of the “soft skills”—like how to work as a team, the importance of being on time and communication skills—often are lacking.

And Kreamer said some students are STEM capable—for science, technology, engineering and math—but don’t have the interest.

One of the biggest barriers to getting people into those jobs, Kreamer said, is a cultural one.

“The most unfilled jobs are those that don’t require a four-year degree,” she said. But those jobs are paying more reaching those higher salaries more quickly.

“We need to change our mindsets … break our addiction on baccalaureate degree or nothing,” said Kreamer. “We’re setting up choice for students saying these are lesser than (those that require a college degree).”

But, those on the panel said, the rigorous education requirements are still needed. That’s why, Wells said, state policymakers need to talk about the Common Core State Standards in a different way. These standards, she said, are globally competitive.

“These are standards that are rich and rigorous and high quality,” Wells said. “We shouldn’t lower ourselves to any less standard and say we can’t do this because it’s hard.”

In fact, Zinth said, the Organisation for Economic Co‑operation and Development—or OECD—called out the U.S. for the poor preparation of high school students for postsecondary education. It’s costly too, she said, because students need a lot of remediation once they reach postsecondary institutions.

Kreamer pointed out that states have had standards for years, and regularly update those standards.

If the U.S. doesn’t raise educational standards, Wells said, people will be able to tell it in the business community. GE, for instance, isn’t seeing its growth in the U.S. That growth, Wells said, is happening in Brazil.

“We need to have something that is raising the bar,” Wells said. “When you start to have this conversation, I talk about it from an economic development standpoint.

“We’re wasting so much time on this conversation that doesn’t need to be happening,” she said of the debate on Common Core.

The Council of State Governments 2014 Leadership Conference: