killing career dreamsFuture of Work Sherpa Dan Smolen believes that education stakeholders are killing career dreams.

Well it has happened. Schools across the U.S. are returning to in-person learning. This despite the fact that Covid outbreaks are now rampant in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.

Right now, our schools are dealing with myriad challenges.

And chief among them is reorienting millions of young people to in-person learning. Since Covid first shut down the world in early 2020, students pivoted to hybrid remote instruction. And in the shift, they often forgot how to engage with other people.

Resocialization remains as big a problem as keeping schools open while the Delta variant ravages communities.

But another serious education problem looms: stakeholders are killing career dreams.

Even pre-pandemic, in-school career exploration plunged far down the list of academic priorities. In the 2000s, public school systems responded to No Child Left Behind Act directives by teaching to competency tests rather than nurturing critical thinking and creativity.

And high schools in wealthiest communities regularly emphasize advanced placement courses and four-year college tracks over Career and Technical Education or CTE.

It’s an economic driver: schools that graduate the most advance-placed students create the most-desired places to live.

killing career dreamsIn the future of work, the greatest number of new well-paying jobs require ongoing CTE certification, not four-year college degrees.

However, our schools have done a terrible disservice by not teeing up and supporting these amazing technical career options for worthy students.

To support the future of work, and enable millions more young people to prepare for tomorrow’s great career options, we must stop killing career dreams.

And this is how we must respond:

  1. Foster career dreaming beyond elementary school. Middle schoolers (grades 5 through 8) are career sponges. They are curious and eager to let their imaginations run wild. And, it is during middle school that we must get intentional, to allow students to visualize their own successful career outcomes.
  2. Drive strong STEAM instruction that begins in Kindergarten. All of our schools must build core skills in science, technology, engineering, artistry, and math early–and make it all fun. With core STEAM skill in place, our community colleges and union academies can ably extend specialized training to high school grads who are eager to embark on great career options that don’t require college degrees.
  3. Establish “early mentorships” with companies in advanced fields. Oftentimes, companies shy away from bringing young people onto their worksites for fear of liability. But we know that when great companies “adopt” students as young as middle school, they ignite in young people the drive and focus necessary to create successful career outcomes.
  4. Build a big educational stakeholder table beyond school administrators that includes community colleges, union training academies, workforce experts, elected officials, and members of advanced industries such as clean energy and resource sustainability. With these constituencies engaging at the stakeholder table with one another, we can make sure that our newest workforce members master great core (STEAM) skill. They also gain specialized accreditation in real-time that meets the demands of an ever changing market.

During the Vietnam War era, young people ditched the technical trades for higher education. The draw was obvious: Draft Age men won college deferments that kept them far from combat.

An unintended consequence: our education system denigrated the value of CTE. In the 1960s and 1970s, the children of skilled tradesmen sought white collar careers requiring specialized degrees. And the United States ditched manufacturing for a service economy.

Now, we can correct what is killing career dreams for so many worthy students. We can make CTE cool, relevant, and the gateway to tomorrow’s great and well-paying jobs.

We can also restore a robust manufacturing economy with a future work talent pipeline.

And when we do all of that, our best days lie ahead.

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Image credits: Wind turbines and technician, BluentBARIS for iStock Photo; Student apprenticeship, andresr for iStock Photo; Podcast button, J. Brandt Studio for The Dan Smolen Experience.