The Council on Foreign Relations has published The Work Ahead Machines, Skills, and U.S. Leadership in the Twenty-First Century, which is an Independent Task Force Report chaired by John Engler and Penny Pritzker, Some of the discussion goes over familiar ground: innovation is needed, technology is changing work, economic growth is important, we should redesign unemployment assistance and sick leave for the modern work force, we should do more to assist displaced workers, and so on. But I want to focus on one chapter of the report, \”Education, Training, and the Labor Market,\” and its discussion of that how the interaction between education and job training has been shifting.
Early in the 20th century, for example, the US experienced an enormous surge in high school completion rates, and for most of those graduates, the high school education was good and sufficient preparation for moving into the workforce. The report notes (footnotes omitted):
\”From 1910 to 1940, just as modern techniques of mass production were being spread across the country, the number of fourteen- to seventeen-year-old Americans attending high school rose from 18 to 73 percent, and high school completion rose from 9 to 51 percent. No other country even came close to achieving these levels until decades later. Most of the progress was led by state and local governments and citizen groups seized with the urgency of extending free education to as many young people as possible, not by the federal government. The lack of accessible educational opportunities that are clearly and transparently linked to the changing demands of the job market is a significant obstacle to improving work outcomes for Americans. Most of these students did not go on to college but rather went directly into the workforce, with high school completion marking the essential credential needed for most to succeed.\”
Increasingly, the challenge is not just providing more education but providing better-targeted education that leads to better work opportunities, even as the target will continue to shift as new technologies are adopted. The number of job openings nationwide—nearly six million—is near record level, yet many employers say they struggle to find the employees they need. The challenges exist not only in higher-paying jobs in information technology and business services, but also in a range of middle-wage jobs, from nursing to manufacturing to traditional trades. The primary focus of the educational system has continued to be formal education for young people—increasing high school completion rates and expanding college enrollment and completion. But that system is too often inadequate in preparing Americans for many of the faster-growing, better-paying
jobs in which employers are looking for some mixture of soft skills, specific technical skills, some practical on-the-job experience, and a capacity for lifelong learning.
\”Employers, for their part, have been slow to develop or expand their own training systems to fill in the gaps from the educational system. … Personnel hiring decisions may be the most important ones that any employer makes, yet most employers make those decisions entirely on the spot market. No company would leave its acquisition of critical raw materials or components to the last moment, but most hiring decisions are made as jobs come open. Employers find themselves competing for often scarce pools of talent, without developing and deepening those talent pools themselves. According to a Harvard Business School survey, just one-quarter of companies have any type of relationship with local community colleges to help prepare employees with the skills they need. Not surprisingly, given their lack of involvement, many companies complain that too few graduates leave school with skills that employers are demanding. … A successful workforce model for the twenty-first century will require a different mind-set. Employers need to think about not just competing for talent, but also how to develop the pipeline of talent they need to build their workforce. That will require greater collaboration not just with educational providers but also with other, even competing, employers. Employers should embrace collaborative approaches to talent development; big gains could be made, for example, by industry sectors working together to ensure a steady flow of properly educated and trained students for their future workforce. … Such work-experience programs are too rare—just 20 percent of adults report having received any sort of work experience as part of their education, and most of that was concentrated in health care and teaching.\”
But American public opinion believes that education should offer clear connections to work. As the report says:
\”Americans increasingly believe that job preparation is a crucial mission for educators. The 2017 Phi Delta Kappa poll on attitudes toward public schools found that Americans want schools to “help position students for their working lives after school. That means both direct career preparation and efforts to develop students’ interpersonal skills.” Specifically, while support for rigorous academic programs remains strong, 82 percent of Americans also want to see job and career classes offered in schools, and 86 percent favor certificate or licensing programs that prepare students for employment.\”