Originally published in The Columbus Dispatch
The government agency that tracks U.S. employment continues to report good news with low unemployment and strong job growth in health care, construction and manufacturing. And in Ohio, the unemployment rate has held steady at 4.6 percent. This is a welcomed departure from a decade ago when the unemployment rate swelled to 11 percent.
Unfortunately, this low unemployment climate has not yet translated into much of an increase in wages, leading some economists to argue that it’s because businesses can’t find workers with the skills needed for higher-salary positions.
Two-thirds of employers hiring for full-time, permanent employees say they can’t find qualified talent to fill open jobs. Many of these positions are in “newcollar” industries like software development, where workers need a high school diploma and high-level training and skills but not necessarily a four-year college degree.
Most education policymakers have spent decades focused on getting more students to go to college. Though there have been successes, we might now be hitting a ceiling in that regard as college continues to be increasingly expensive. According to the College Board, costs at four-year public universities have risen by nearly 30 percent in the past decade — a bad problem made worse when students waste time with courses they don’t need because they weren’t exposed to all their options in high school.
For many of the students unsure of what they’d want to study, or even unsure of whether college is for them, there’s an answer: taking courses in high school that will help them succeed post-diploma. It’s an amazingly obvious solution that simply requires breaking out of the “only college” educational mindset.
Here’s what it looks like. When students reach high school, they complete core academic subjects alongside applied learning experiences that provide the indemand skills that high-growth industries are seeking. Students graduate with experience they can put to work right away, whether that’s launching a career or simply earning good money while they continue with higher education.
These courses are not your father’s shop class or your grandmother’s home economics. Students in today’s career-readiness classes might learn the principles of business management, gain hands-on experience in information technology or even participate in advanced finance or marketing classes.
Unlike traditional high school classes, quality career-readiness programs provide students with opportunities to focus their studies on a certain “track” or a “concentration,” giving them a deeper knowledge of a specific subject or skill than an introductory course might only brush over. Students on these paths are more familiar with their subjects and often test out of lower-level college classes, just as they would with an Advanced Placement course. As a result, ambitious students can simultaneously receive their high school diploma and an associate degree. Some states’ education departments will even pay for it.
The benefits of career readiness are clear: A 2016 study from the Thomas Fordham Institute demonstrates that taking these classes in high school improves a student’s odds of graduating from high school, finding a job after graduation and — most importantly — attending college. All this, plus a 2017 study from Georgia State University showed that the more career-readiness courses students take, the greater their future earning potential.
By allowing students to take classes in areas that actually interest them, careerreadiness programs help students sample different fields one class period at a time — much more affordable than figuring it out in college, switching majors and turning a four-year college degree into a five- or six-year ordeal.
Career readiness is the perfect fit for smart, outcome-oriented and enterprising students. No matter what track they take, career readiness is helping students get ahead in college and in life. They acquire transferable skills and professional talents; they earn degrees faster and cheaper than their peers; and above all that, they gain early access to unprecedented growth in the U.S. economy. And that alone deserves a passing grade.
Kristin Stewart, Ph.D., is Head of School over the Destinations Career Academy program at Ohio Virtual Academy.
To learn more about Ohio Virtual Academy, visit https://ohva.k12.com/