Boiling Down to Job Prep

As my own children have entered middle school and late elementary school, I find myself analyzing the nature of their schoolwork in terms of job preparation. It typically begins with an innocuous question like ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ Now, I realize my 11 year old son will likely change this answer a hundred times before entering the work force, but as an inquisitive father, I ask. The brief conversation then leads us along the path of ‘what classes do you like?’ and ‘what are your interests?’ We chat about what school assignments have been exciting, which were painful, and which ones would fit in careers of their interest. It’s usually a quick conversation that ends in a shrug or two, and I’m left contemplating much more than originally planned.

I also have friends who are philosophical about the modern educational system. They are parents and grandparents who look at the ever evolving marketplace and wonder if current testing standards/structures are truly preparing our children for their adulthood. I look at how technological advances and the expanding global market have made such an impact on our lives, and thus our workforce. One well-read friend believes that we may be on the cusp of an educational revolution- that our current system was structurally designed to prepare a workforce that doesn’t exist in the same form today.

It is clear that the structure of our education system hasn’t shifted with the urgency needed to respond. As with 100 years ago, we probe the surface knowledge of our students so that they can demonstrate their short-term memory. How is that measured? Why, by an assessment typically composed of multiple choice questions, of course. Let’s think about this for a moment. If we need to acquire a discrete piece of information in our daily adult lives, what do we do? Do we remember what was asked in our semester tests of old? Run down to the library and search for it? Do we sit at our place of work and contemplate what we learned twenty years ago in school? No, we either ‘Google’ it on any number of devices or ask a coworker (who likely employs the ‘Google’ method). Then we use that information and apply it to our job.

The ability to retrieve facts is fun, don’t get me wrong. It’s a great tool if you are into trivia contests, but it doesn’t have much practical application in our adult lives. Regardless of where we are in the workforce, we’re being asked to navigate complicated situations with a set of skills that aren’t formally developed in our education. (For the purposes of this blog, I’m not talking about teaching socially-appropriate values and behaviors (that’s an entirely different can of worms)).

I worry that our current system doesn’t afford our children as much opportunity to be exposed to truly job-related experiences. Don’t get me wrong, there are wonderful programs installed in our school systems to provide ‘voc tech’ training. A wonderful example in our area is the James Rumsey Technical Institute (www.jamesrumsey.com). It is a career and technical education provider for high school students and adult learners. In its setting, students have access to specialized programs like masonry, welding, massage therapy and truck driving. Other fantastic centers of practical opportunity exist- such as the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center (wwrc.virginia.gov)- which Grafton used as a model to reform its own Career and Technical Education offerings in the last decade.

What concerns me is that centers like these are notable because they exist apart from our school buildings instead of many times being the buildings. Fortunate high schools have their own vo-ag buildings in which trade skills are taught in shop classes. For those schools without the physical plant space, however, their students are lacking these opportunities.

Let’s think about the possibilities that will be available, and affordable (especially in comparison to the astronomical fees textbook publishers charge). Virtual Reality is currently hitting the market in a variety of applications. As companies begin to more efficiently mass produce the technology (and supply increases), prices will surely drop. For schools who cannot use rooms for vehicle repair and/or carpentry, they could instead employ VR resources to train students in a trade-related skill set while simultaneously embedding the traditional curriculum.

This would require the system to shake off the routine of tradition, which we all know is difficult for anyone. It would also require that educational leaders take risks with program design and instructional tool selection. And yes, it would challenge the billion dollar business of textbook and assessment publishing.

Other nations are feeling the stress of this need as well, and have made attempts to reform their educational systems. In the late 1990s, Switzerland responded to a training need by restructuring their secondary educational system (which had previously enjoyed an already strong apprenticeship component). Their dual vocational and education system, (termed a ‘VET’), is summarized wonderfully in an international comparative study by Nancy Hoffman and Robert Schwartz at http://www.ncee.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/SWISSVETMarch11.pdf. As described in this study, 70 percent of Swiss secondary school students participate in the vocational arm of their system. What’s more, there is strong support for this program from the private sector that sees it as a wonderful training tool for potential employees.

I think that may be where our hopes for systematic change lie. The private sector is constantly analyzing its own training programs in an attempt to meet its current and future needs. There is certainly opportunity for these employers to open its training environments to potential/future employees. Imagine how we could expand existing ‘Career Days’ into semester-long experiences in which an employer offered on-the-job orientation training where students are taught real life navigation of the workplace while continuing to learn embedded curricular content. Schools would require less space in this type of model because students would be at the workplace. This type of model would dramatically enhance the existing school/business partnership.

Now imagine how the conversation with my own children would change, even at this younger age, if our system adapted to a more VET-like model. ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ could quickly inform other conversations where our family looks at particular career orientation activities. Perhaps we’d read over the school system’s ‘job preview’ experiences and chat about what they liked and what they didn’t. Or perhaps I’d still get a shrug (which is the likeliest of outcomes). At the very least, however, it would give our children the chance to think about these life-altering choices, with real experiences, prior to their own career start. Just something to think about.