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Schools embrace career pathways but can they be dead ends?

Over coffee in Orlando at the Project Lead The Way national summit last month, the nonprofit’s president and CEO Vince Bertram told me about three questions he once asked a gathering of manufacturing managers. Every hand shot up in response to the first two: How many had unfilled jobs and how many had unfilled high-paying jobs?

No hands raised in response to the third question: How many would want their own children to take those jobs?

That’s because those leaders knew their available jobs would someday disappear, lost to automation or relocation, said Bertram.

The solution — and the basis of Project Lead The Way’s efforts in 10,000 schools — is to excite k-12 students about fields resistant to obsolescence, including engineering, bio-medicine and computers. Bertram and Project Lead The Way promote math and science competency through applied learning and encourage a STEM focus in college.

While Bertram says college can be an expensive way for distracted teens to find themselves, he also stresses that a four-year degree remains a proven stepping stone to financial security. However, he says students have to do  college wisely so they don’t end up easily replaceable commodities in an economy that evolves quickly and without mercy. Graduates must leave campus literate in data analytics and skilled in business administration, computers and communications if they hope to be valued.

Before sitting down with Bertram, I attended an Atlanta forum on the future of work. Several speakers talked about how Georgia students need alternatives to four-year degrees. Schools need more apprenticeships and business partnerships. They ought to invite local companies to share their workforce needs and tailor high school career pathways to those waiting jobs.

But how do we guarantee those jobs won’t fall victim to automation or relocation, that those career pathways won't lead to a dead end?  And, if they do, what becomes of the workers?

A journalist who interviewed people who lost good-paying jobs after their industry moved to Mexico told the forum that the majority of workers resisted retraining programs for other jobs in the area. They were more comfortable with the idea of being unemployed than being retrained, she said. They were nervous about learning new technologies and coding.

That doesn't surprise Jeff Strohl, director of research at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “I would be scared, too, if my industry died," he said in a telephone interview. "A lot of promises have been made to workers and not kept. Workers have to believe the training itself leads to immediate employment, not the promise of employment. I don’t think many people want to purposely go on nonstop unemployment but they also don’t want to make a bad gamble.”

The push for pathways concerns Strohl. “I have a problem with the career pathway model because they talk about first or entry jobs but are not focused tightly on how the entry becomes a career defined by upward job/career mobility," he said. "We need to start looking at how people not only get into a good job, but how do we help them into the next job. We have a problem with dislocated workers. Someone gets a job and then the industry changes. It globalizes. It disappears.”

Strohl said the answer is finding a balance between general and specific skills. “Specific skills can get you through the door but are generally considered non-transferable and make the worker and economy non-flexible: General skills enable learning to learn which enables workers to leverage their skill sets in new environments."


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.