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The Workforce Is Changing. Are K-12 Schools Keeping Up?

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The needs of the workforce have transformed dramatically thanks to technological changes, globalization, and demographic shifts. But K-12 schools, post-secondary institutions, and job-training organizations are preparing students for jobs using essentially the same set of strategies they've been relying on for decades.

That's the message from a report released Thursday by the RAND Corporation

At the same time, employers are struggling to find workers with so-called '21st-century skills' such as the ability to synthesize information, creativity, problem-solving, communication, and teamwork. Yet the path forward is not easy for workers looking to upgrade their skills due to automation or shifting consumer demands. 

"Employers are saying they can't find employees with the skills they need, and on the other end you have workers whose jobs have been made less relevant," said Melanie Zaber, an associate economist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization based in Santa Monica, Calif.

Most of those out-of-work individuals aren't recent high school or even college graduates, however. Many of them are middle-aged workers, who worked in shrinking industries such as retail and manufacturing, she said. 

The blame shouldn't be all on schools, the RAND report emphasizes. Employers, and education and job training institutions don't do a great job of systematically sharing information with schools that would allow them to better prepare students for the changing needs of the workforce. Plus, funding for K-12 education isn't equally distributed and often neglects the areas that need strong pre-career training the most.

What also makes progress difficult is that high school principals rarely get to see how their students are doing years after they leave the classroom, Zaber said. In fact, educators often never hear whether their students needed remediation when they enrolled in community college, studies have found. Some states—including Kentucky, Minnesota, and New Jersey—are trying to change this reality by creating data systems that track students from high school into the workforce, Zaber said.

"Letting high school principals see what happens when students leave their doors can help inform policy for where the gaps are, where the barriers are, where students are being let down," Zaber said. "That can help inform policy."

High schools also need to do a better job informing students who might not be interested in attending a four-year college about fast-growing careers that require an associate degree or less education, such as home health aides, or jobs in carpentry and construction, she added. 

Some states are trying to meet the future needs of the workforce by creating standards for growing areas, like computational thinking and digital literacy, Zaber said, including Arkansas, Indiana, and Virginia.  

RAND would also like to see states, districts, post-secondary institutions, and employers provide equitable access to workforce training opportunities. That means stronger connections between school systems and training providers and employers.

For K-12 systems, that means promoting life-long learning skills so that students will be prepared to pursue additional training if and when their jobs become obsolete. And it means making information about the full range of career possibilities, including the cost of training and salary information, readily available. After K-12, it means providing "multiple on-ramps" to help workers get retrained, including through labor unions and unemployment services.

Want more on the future of work? Check out this report

Image: Getty


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