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Educators and Employers Join Forces to Improve Workforce Readiness

To make sure their curriculum is relevant and excite students about career possibilities, educators are increasingly turning to the business community. And many employers, who say they can't find enough qualified workers to fill openings at their companies, are eager to get involved.

Some business leaders are pushing educators to rethink the notion of a four-year college degree for all and encourage training for the growing number of "middle-skill" jobs that require short-term credentials or two-year degrees.

The job-skills gap is a hot-button issue and improving employer connections with career technical education is seen as one of the ways to solve the problem.

In my recent stories, "Employers are Intregal to Career Tech Programs" and "Outside Groups Build Bridges Between School, Business," I talked with many educators seeking more input from the real world of business and employers looking for ways to support schools to expand the talent pool.

Recently, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the National Association of State Leaders of Career Technical Education Consortium, issued papers calling for deeper relationships between employers and educators.

"Our nation's education and workforce development systems are failing to keep pace with the development of our economy," according to the Chamber's paper, titled Talent Pipeline Management,released in November. "The business community must be involved in more-effective ways if the skills gap is to be closed."

Once schools are aware of what businesses need, the next challenge is to get students interested in those career pathways.

Employees need a combination of academic and workplace skills, suggests Nicholas Wyman, the author of Job U and the chief executive officer of the Institute for Workplace Skills and Innovation. "You don't see as many students rolling up their sleeves and understanding what it's like to work in a particular industry," he said. He advocates for apprenticeships or "pre-apprenticeships" where students can work one day a week on the job, while continuing their traditional studies.

Too many people have embraced the notion that a four-year college degree is "the one road to heaven," after high school, contends William C. Symonds, the director of the Global Pathways Institute at Arizona State University. The goal for parents, instead, should be for their children to achieve economic independence, which could include a career-focused education.

To open up parents and students to other options, Mr. Symonds suggests bringing business people to the schools and encouraging work-based learning. "That puts students in contact with people who are aware of what's going on in the labor market," said Mr. Symonds.

The Nashville public schools redesigned its high schools in 2006 into smaller learning communities where students are taught through the lens of a career or academic theme. Students are exposed to careers early and interact with employers to get a sense of the marketplace prior to graduation. For instance, all 9th graders take part in a city-wide career fair where 300 businesses set up shop in the convention center. The nearly 7,000 freshmen must ask employers about their companies and write a paper about their experience.

Teams of teachers and counselors, in turn, spend time in the summer visiting work sites so their instruction reflects the latest business practices. "It's been really transformational for teaching and learning in the districts," said Jay Steele, the chief academic officer for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

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