Creating Better Pathways From Education to the Workforce

By Jeffrey Selingo

Professor of Practice/Special Adviser, Arizona State University, and Visiting Scholar, Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities

Over the next two months, it will be commencement season across the United States. From high schools to community colleges and four-year universities, students will be encouraged with hopeful speeches and congratulated for their hard work and determination.

But for too many graduates, no matter the level of education they’re just completing, the transition to their next destination will be fraught with potential hurdles. Nearly 70 percent of this year’s high school graduates will go right on to college this fall, but if history is any guide only about half of them will graduate in four years. For those who do graduate, more than 40 percent of them might be underemployed, working in jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s degree, according to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

We are living in a new economy where entire industries expand and contract with alarming speed, and where even a college education doesn’t guarantee immediate success for everyone with a degree. Even professions such as law, accounting and medicine no longer are the steady career paths they once were.

Over the past eight months, after the publication of my book “There Is Life After College,” I’ve been on a journey to discover how to create better pathways from education to the workforce. With the support of Strada Education NetworkSM, I gathered a couple hundred key leaders in education and the workforce in four cities — Denver, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Indianapolis — to discuss how we can create better pathways to the workforce.

Pathways to Prosperity
Leaders in education and the workforce — including Everette Freeman of Community College of Denver (left) and Patrick Lane of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education — convene at the Denver Pathways to
Prosperity event.

In these convenings, called Pathways to Prosperity, we were inspired by speakers who were already rethinking the on-ramps to careers. We also spent a considerable part of our time together in smaller groups with hands-on workshops designed by our partner, Kinetic Seeds, to create new ways of approaching what sometimes seems like an intractable problem.

Determining needs

While the conversations were different in each of the four cities, a few needs emerged in all of them, including:

Greater career exploration earlier in a student’s education journey. Most high school graduates pick careers that are familiar to them. But given the changes in the workforce and the growing segregation of many career fields in certain regions of the country, it’s difficult for students to have a sense of how their skills and interests line up with occupations and careers.

What we heard is that they need to learn, either in person or virtually, the types of jobs that exist or will exist.

An interconnected education system. When K-12 teachers and officials met with higher education leaders at our gatherings, their conversations prompted many ideas about how they could better work together on issues involving career development. Career tracks no longer are straight and linear; they are interconnected and overlapping, and the career preparation needed to succeed in the modern economy also needs to be interconnected.

More education for all jobs. For decades, the United States has operated in a system where some students graduated from high school but didn’t pursue a postsecondary education because there were jobs requiring only a high school diploma. We heard in every city we visited that stopping with a high school education no longer is a viable option. But that doesn’t mean everyone needs a four-year college degree.

Better pathways need to be designed from high school to some sort of postsecondary education that will eventually lead to middle-skill and middle-class jobs.

Presenting solutions

Near the end of the day in each city, the participants who had been working in small groups for much of their time together would reconvene to share their solutions. Their work in such a short amount of time was both inspiring and thoughtful. Again, specific themes developed around the solutions presented in each of the cities:

Build a virtual advising system. In every city, solutions were offered to beef up advising to students, in some cases as early as middle school. Most public school counselors have overwhelming caseloads and a variety of issues to address beyond just what comes after graduation. Indeed, public school counselors, on average, spend less than a quarter of their time on college advising, and even less on career development, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Given improvements in video technology and webchats, several groups presented ideas for a library of courses about careers and a series of live video chats with counselors that enable the scaling of good advice and building on what one of Strada Education’s companies, Roadtrip Nation, already offers to millions of people.

Create apprenticeships in all occupations and jobs. While we were in Denver, we heard about Gov. John Hickenlooper’s plan to make apprenticeships ubiquitous in high schools around the state. Later this year, Colorado will begin offering hands-on training, starting in high school, in financial services, information technology and health care as well as manufacturing. The goal is to make the program available to some 20,000 students within the next decade.

In every city, participants in our convenings suggested concrete steps to creating new pathways out of high school that included work-based learning. And while apprenticeships are not new, what we heard is that they need to be brought into the 21st century so that they are not just associated with the building trades and students who are not “college-going material.”

Require co-ops and internships in postsecondary education. Several groups proposed plans that would create dual tracks within two- and four-year colleges where students would alternate between classes and work. We often heard of the bifurcated higher education system where students spend most of their time in classes, and perhaps little or no time actually applying the skills they are learning. Co-ops and internships provide students with better opportunities to transfer their classroom learning to real work, and in the process better determine where their skills and passions best align.

At the very end of each day, participants made commitments to pursue further development on the solutions presented. Although the groups that were gathered all work in similar areas of education and workforce development, some of them said it was the first time they were brought together to discuss these important issues on a regional basis.

Our hope is that, in the years ahead, we will begin seeing new and innovative pathways to work and helping more students find rewarding and fulfilling careers.