Recent articles on the value of a college education and absence of career preparation within the current k-20 education system spiked my interest in tying the themes together as a way of assessing employment outcomes for graduates of postsecondary and higher education programs.

On the one hand, there are loud policy voices calling for international academic standards and assessments bench-marked against other countries education systems with a constant outcry of how far behind US students perform against their global peers. Most current and planned state/federal education initiatives promote academic choice options such as charter schools, international baccalaureate programs, and increased testing/assessment. These efforts, the public is told, will put American students in high paying/high performing professional occupations.

The LA Times headline seemed to point in a different direction, stating that the promise of better employment guarantees thought to be part of earning a college degree were at odds with recent public and private researched patterns of employment- both now and for the foreseeable future. Although patterns of retained employment in good paying, white collar jobs for college graduates over 25 trends almost 50% better with almost twice the income than those with a high school education only, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that seven of the 10 employment sectors that will see the largest gains over the next decade won’t require much more than some on-the-job training. These include home health-care aides, customer service representatives and food preparers and servers- occupations that generally do not pay a living wage, offer benefits, or have upward career ladders.

Where in our educational system do we link learning to know with learning to do?

There is no research that conclusively demonstrates that school choice, high test scores on state assessments, and higher education alone will guarantee a substantially more affluent and secure life or productive workforce. Part of the problem and solution to linking educational achievement to career success is discussed in an Arizona Republic article on the findings of a soon-to-be released report by the Arizona Minority Education Policy Analysis Center.

This article discusses that despite significant changes in technology and shifts in employer needs, most Arizona schools continue to teach students  traditional, content-driven curriculum while failing to instill in them a sense of community and a desire to help everyone succeed.  According to a summary of the report, “To Learn and Earn: A Race to Good Jobs”, the majority Arizona students aren’t thinking about which career path they will follow, and those who do know where they want to go possess little more than a fairy-tale notion of how to get there.

I would add that there is no where within the secondary and higher education system in Arizona and the rest of the country that systemicatically embeds the process of making an informed career decision. This is a long-term process that involves aligning personal values with occupational interests, measured abilities/aptitudes, and extensive field work through internships, informational interviews, job tours/samplings and school tours. It is a deep introspective journey into figuring out what matters most to ones self, finding an occupation to live those values/skills out  AND an employer who shares/practices these core essentials.

The full report will be released in August 2010, and offers reasonable suggestions such as adoption of a universally recognized “credential systems” that would offer employers a clear understanding of the specific skills possessed by each job seeker. This approach was comprehensively developed in the early 1990’s as a recommendation by the US Department of Labor Secretaries’ Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills: What Work Expects of Schools. A good idea then and an even better one now, but certainly not a new idea.

Other recommendations are  the creation of a state department or office to coordinate state and federal workforce initiatives and the integration of the planning efforts for education and employment programs, restoration of state-funded post-secondary scholarship, an expansion of Arizona’s job-training fund, and the development of an “innovation fund,” which could be used in various ways to lure desirable, emerging industries to the state.

Missing: The Human Factor

What is missing from this top down approach is the development at the individual and local level of the skilled and trained providers of career planning, career re-planing, job development and placement. One of the primary reasons we continue to founder as a nation in this area is that we develop systems of decision planning that are not possible to be implemented because of our lack of the human factor- those individuals who will take the necessary time to nurture a relationship tapping into the spirit and idealism that goes with the pursuit of education and training.

This relationship takes time to develop, and succeeds best when it starts early- no later than the sixth grade- to begin instilling the qualities/processes/techniques of responsibility for making decisions. Practicing in classroom and community settings how to deal with the anxiety of choice must be part of the core curriculum and any authentic education assessment system.

Leaving out the pragmatic application of getting into/being part of the adult community is a continuation towards a generation of job seekers who do not know how to approach a complicated decision process, what to do if their plans fall though and how to determine alternative career pathways by recognizing their transferable skills for new/emerging occupations.

Career decisions are fraught with many unknowns such as how much decision risk uncertainty a person can tolerate, really understanding the quality of life trade offs and consequences of a choosing a career, and being able to live with achieving a portion of desired career wants/needs. Perhaps policy makers, program planners,  and educational institutions should add career planner and job developer to the list of most needed occupations for the future. We need these skilled pioneers now more than ever before to achieve the promise and potential that is part of continuing education.