Employers can take an active part in preparing high school students for the workforce.
Recently, I attended a ceremony in my school district—Alief Independent School District in Houston, Texas—where approximately 60 high school students of different ethnicities, cultures, and nationalities were recognized and inducted into the 2022 National Technical Honor Society (NTHS). The NTHS honors high school students across the United States who demonstrate competencies in a specific curriculum or program of study that aligns with the needs and expectations of the local workforce. What made the induction ceremony even more special was that the students take a significant number of courses in the workforce field that best matches their desires and skills.
Students were recognized for their success in workforce preparation programs in fields identified as high need in the local community. The students participated in workforce courses as varied as healthcare, coding, robotics, culinary arts, forensic science, cybersecurity, construction science, welding, information technology, automotive technology, and more. As I looked at the crowd of proud parents, teachers, and business partners, I could not help but think to myself that the ceremony represented what our parents, communities, taxpayers, and employers should expect from our local school systems: meaningful educational experiences that truly equip young Americans with the knowledge and ability to begin building decent lives.
The NTHS ceremony was powerful reminder that we need a greater emphasis on noncollege pathways so that all students can participate in, contribute to, and benefit from our great economy. During my career in education, particularly during my 17 years as a superintendent, two questions have continued to challenge me. First, why is it that policymakers and leaders across the American education systems—both K–12 and higher education—seem to move slowly when confronted with the complexities of preparing students for the workforce? Second, why does it seem that employers and industry are rarely involved in policymaking and education-related decisions regarding the transition of students into the workforce?
If we can agree that one of the core purposes of education is to sustain our republic by educating and preparing all citizens to participate in and contribute to our society, then one of the ultimate stakeholders of our education system is employers. Employers should be involved with education decision-making at the national, state, and local levels. By not moving to include the employer in this process on the front end, it seems our country will continue to struggle to meet the growing and changing demands of the labor market on the back end.
Despite efforts to address the problem, it persists in many parts of the American education system. We can make progress by offering valuable alternatives to college preparatory curricula in high schools and making employers stakeholders and participants in the education system.
Progress on Pathways in Texas
Over the last near-half century, it has been common for educators as well as local, state, and federal leaders to treat college bachelor’s degrees as the pathway of choice for all. This belief has been embedded in our society and educational institutions while we sacrifice comprehensive workforce preparation programs like career and technical education. There is no question that many bachelor’s degrees are beneficial, but not at the expense of robust workforce preparation for all students.
Like most states, Texas long subscribed to the college-for-all approach in its high schools. Prior to 2013, the state required each student to take a very strict and prescriptive curriculum based on an assumption that all students were preparing for and would be attending a four-year college. In addition, students would have to take and pass 15—yes, 15—state tests to graduate. If you were a student who was not interested in college or could not afford college, you had no viable options. Many students and parents understandably questioned the relevance of the high school experience for their life, and in worst-case scenarios, students dropped out of high school altogether.
But in 2012, the issue finally drew the ire of parents, students, and the general business community. Never had the cornerstones of a community—parents, schools, churches, and employers—coalesced around education issues like they did in Texas that year. Parents across the state organized and led a campaign to reduce the number of exams a students must pass to graduate. They wanted flexibility for students and believed the status quo was onerous and promoted a “teach to the test” mentality. At the same time, employers across multiple industry sectors lobbied for education polices that prepared students for high-demand jobs that did not require four-year degrees. A group of education leaders met them with policy ideas to address their concerns.
Texas policymakers heard this united voice. During the 2013 legislative session, the Texas Legislature passed a bill (House Bill 5) that restructured the high school experience for all students. Instead of a solely college-prep curriculum, Texas reformed the courses students are required to take for graduation. Instead of every student taking the same core courses, students were now granted some flexibility to select one of five “endorsements” or pathways. The endorsements included: Business and Industry, STEM, Arts and Humanities, Public Services, and Multidisciplinary.
Each endorsement contained multiple programs of study and sequential courses that students could select based on their interests and skills as well employer needs. For example, the Business and Industry endorsement included four years of sequential courses in fields such as Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, Architecture, Construction Management and Science, Finance, Information Technology, Manufacturing, Plumbing, Welding, Automotive Services, and many more. One of the most popular endorsements remains Public Services, in which students take courses and have field experiences in education, military JROTC, and all health science fields‚ from medical coding to radiology, nursing to pharmacy tech.
While not perfect, Texas seems to have placed a value and priority on the needs of the workforce. Since 2013, the number of students earning dual credit in career-related courses has increased significantly. The number of industry-based certifications has increased, and the transition from high school to high-wage, high-demand jobs continues.
The Role of The Business Community
In the marketplace, consumers influence business behavior with their purchasing decisions. Companies must respond and adapt to consumer behaviors—or else lose business. Yet, in a key dimension of the education marketplace, such a dynamic has broken down. Employers are principal consumers of the education system, hiring its graduates in the labor market. Until recently, they rarely played any role in informing or assisting education systems to meet their workforce needs. In fact, employers have hired workers from overseas, claiming that American workers are less skilled, rather than invest in the domestic education system. To repair the labor market, employers and educators must adapt and work together.
The needs of American employers are always changing. In the current labor market, there are many meaningful career opportunities that require some form of post-secondary education but not necessarily a four-year college degree. If our country is going to meet the workforce demand changes over the next several generations, policymakers and educators must dedicate efforts and resources to encourage and incentivize workforce initiatives with the same sense of urgency that we place on four-year college admissions and graduation.
There are growing opportunities for educators and employers to collaborate and build meaningful student pathways. Organizations like local Chambers of Commerce and Economic Development Corporations can actively engage with their local school systems and identify opportunities for specific sectors and companies to develop meaningful courses, curricula, and assessments. Collaborations can yield meaningful outcomes like apprenticeships, workplace experiences, and marketable credentials for students.
There is evidence that this kind of collaboration does work. For example, Trio Electric, a large Houston-area commercial electrical company, has worked with local school districts to create their specific electrical curriculum and provide instructors to teach courses. Trio helps fund students in the program to earn their first certifications as electrical apprentices. Upon graduation, students have the option to work at Trio and pursue additional certifications. After struggling to fill technical positions vacated by a retiring workforce, Trio has now built a pipeline for young talent and provided an example for other businesses in the region.
Policymakers at the state level should convene educators and employers to build career-oriented pathways. To enable and encourage such collaboration, policy can create incentives and set priorities. Two considerations stand out.
First, the content of the curriculum and pathways should always be consistent with the skills, knowledge, and abilities that the employer is seeking in an employee. Measurements used to determine those skills should be consistent with the industry standards and not a one-size-fits-all standardized test score.
On the Gulf Coast of Texas, for instance, a large petrochemical company has partnered with the local school system to design a math and a science course specifically related to the role of a process technician. Students can take these courses as “core” math and science course and then upon graduation, go to work as a process technician with a starting salary of approximately $75,000. This is but one example of education that begins with the needs of the labor market and aligns its courses and curricula to meet them.
Second, schools and school systems should be properly evaluated for the skills and marketable outcomes of their graduates. Evaluation assessments have an influence on any education system’s behaviors. In many cases, states determine how a school is doing by assigning a grade or label corresponding to some form of measurement. In Texas, each campus and school district receive a letter grade (A–F) based largely on test scores, further incenting schools to devote time, money, and resources to student test preparation. While an accountability system is not unreasonable, most of these systems fail to emphasize and sufficiently measure efforts related to workforce development programs. State test scores continue to drive the behavior of students, teachers, and superintendents. An accountability system should better align with the flexibility described above. Without appropriate measurement, school leaders will continue to lack the necessary incentives to build career-oriented pathways. To ensure school systems are providing meaningful workforce programs of study, accountability systems must recognize and encourage these efforts.
Some states have adapted their education accountability system to include workforce development. For example, a few years ago, Texas began identifying certain industry-based certifications to be included in each high school’s accountability system. Basically, if a student earns one of the Texas-approved certifications, the school’s accountability label will reflect this achievement and the school district can qualify for additional funding. While Texas could improve by including all employers’ voices in developing the approved list of certifications, overall, this is a move in the right direction.
If policymakers provide the flexibility, incentives, and funding for employer-led course design, programs, equipment, and facilities, our education system will provide the kind of opportunities needed to equip our youngest Americans to sustain our great country. For our economy to succeed, we must meet the demand of all employers, not just those that require a four-year degree.