American business is caught in a painful paradox. When job openings are announced, applicants line up by the hundreds. Yet managers say they can't find people to fill jobs.
What these employers mean is they can't find people with the right skills -- people who can read technical manuals, solve customer problems, handle a spreadsheet, work in teams, and think on their feet. Rapid changes in technology, the globalization of the marketplace, and the spread of new kinds of workplace organizations require more knowledge and skills from all employees. Even when the line of applicants stretches around the block, only a few may be able to handle such assignments.
Yet, often enough, that same line may contain scores of young people who did pretty well in school, and in their pain and disappointment lies a powerful lesson: the traditional school curriculum expects too little of students and fails to help them acquire the personal qualities and habits of mind demanded in today's workplace.
The Need for High Academic Standards
By most indicators, school performance has improved in the last two decades. The problem is that schools have not kept pace with the demands of a rapidly changing world. For the most part, our education system is designed to prepare students for the world of work that existed a generation ago. Schools are compelled to help students score well on standardized tests, which is not the same thing as teaching the skills needed to be successful in life.
The single most important thing our nation can do to improve education is to develop high academic standards for all students, together with assessments to make sure the standards are being met. Our tradition of expecting only college-bound students to meet high standards is no longer sufficient. More than ever before, students preparing to enter the workforce need the same advanced academic skills. Stronger academic standards are the first step to ensuring that every student gains the knowledge and skills needed for responsible citizenship and productive work.
Business must help set those standards by communicating what skills are needed in the workplace. As a recent Brookings Institution study pointed out, "Although businesses have frequently lamented the quality of workers they receive from schools, few have ever worked closely with schools to define the skills and abilities that they are seeking in prospective workers." A growing number of companies are participating in industry-skill standards projects to do just that. Others are actively involved in state-level efforts to develop academic standards and assessments.
Some states and districts have adopted sweeping education reforms and are now developing more detailed curriculum and assessment regimes. The standards-setting movement needs to be encouraged so that it extends to all states, districts, and individual schools. This stage will determine what kids are actually taught, and what will constitute acceptable levels of performance. Business input is critical -- and will continue to be so as skill demands change.
As standards are being set, it's important to remember that the purpose of schooling is not simply to make students economically competitive, but to produce competent citizens, caring adults, and productive members of communities. At the same time, learning job skills does more than just prepare students to earn a living -- it also helps students understand the world around them and how they fit into it.
The Value of Work-Based Learning
In the classroom, motivating students to learn is one of the most important keys to success. Too often, though, students fail to understand how academic learning is applied in the real world. We should not ask them to prepare for their futures with blindfolds on -- we should make sure they have as much information as possible about how to prepare themselves to be successful in a changing world. Business can play a critical role by helping to create links between academic subjects and the world of work.
With a closer partnership between education and business, project-oriented learning can be based, at least some of the time, on genuine business problems that allow students to develop, apply, and create knowledge.
Students can be challenged, for example, to find the best way to transport a commodity from a supplier on the other side of the world to a factory in their community. Through computer simulations, students can electronically tour the place where the commodity is produced -- such as a kiwi grove in New Zealand or a silkworm farm in China -- and learn about local customs and ways of doing business. They can access electronic databases to research different methods and routes of transportation, comparing time versus cost. They can consult with business people, either in-person or via the Internet, as they work to solve logistical problems. Finally, they can summarize their findings in a multimedia presentation that integrates text, audio, graphs, maps, animation, and video, and share it with teachers and students across the hall or around the globe.
These kinds of practical experiences can link what students are expected to learn with what they'll be expected to accomplish as adults -- and make learning exciting!
Learning in a real-world context is useful for all students, including those preparing for college. Separating students preparing for work and college implies that college-bound students never need to prepare for work. Rather than asking students, "Are you going to work or to college?" we should ask students, "What career are you interested in pursuing?" Only then can we provide students with an education that will keep all of life's doors open.
The Role of Business
There are many ways business can and should become involved in helping all children meet high standards. Over the past decade, thousands of businesses have entered partnerships with schools or districts in which they provide in-kind services or equipment. More recently, in order to help schools take full advantage of advanced technologies, companies have begun donating free cable connections or Internet access. Some companies are lending their technical professionals to assist schools with installing technology, such as determining the best way to wire networks within a school or among schools across town.
Aside from technology, businesses have a wealth of expertise that can help improve education. Businesses that have successfully re-engineered can help guide public school bureaucracies through the challenges of restructuring. Business leaders can contribute strategic planning help, budget guidance, and ideas about better forms of management systems. They can also help administrators adopt competitive contracting for services.
Employment policies can be recast to better support education. Some businesses are adopting new work schedules and structures that promote not only the continuing education of employees, but also participation in the schooling of young people, especially their own children. Parents get time off for conferences with teachers or school-governance meetings. Employees are encouraged to become mentors for students or make themselves available to help with classroom projects, sometimes via electronic networks.
Knowledge transfer is another key component of any successful business-education partnership. High school and community college faculties often are urged to teach about fast-breaking technologies and new workplace skills, but never see the inside of a real business where those innovations are being developed. Companies should bring teachers, administrators, professors, and students on-site, whether through visits, seminars, or internships. In some cases, similar experiences can be offered through electronic field trips, using video conferencing or virtual reality technology. Business can't complain about the lack of connection between school and work if they bar the door.
Many companies are becoming involved in promising new efforts to create better transitions between school and careers. These school-to-career programs, which typically involve both classroom instruction and on-the-job learning in the form of apprenticeships or structured internships, help students acquire skills like problem solving and the ability to collaborate that are vital in today's working environment. Unlike traditional vocational education, these programs are open to both college-bound and non-college-bound students and hold all participants to the same high academic standards. By working together, schools and employers are able to provide experiences that motivate youth to acquire high-level academic and workplace skills, which, in turn, can lead to rewarding employment and future learning opportunities.
We Can Do Better!
What will happen if all American students are truly expected to achieve at high levels? What can we anticipate if we commit ourselves to producing graduates with solid basic skills and mastery of a strong, well-rounded curriculum?
Of course, the most immediate beneficiaries would be our young people themselves. Not only would better schooling strengthen their minds and broaden their perspectives, it would also vastly enhance their economic prospects, enabling more of them to succeed in college; compete for rewarding careers; and earn the kind of wages and benefits needed to raise a family.
But companies would also benefit, since a more highly skilled workforce would enable them to adopt more efficient work strategies and increase productivity. In the long run, stronger educational standards would generate a larger domestic market as higher skills increase workers' wages and buying power.
It's time to stop pretending that education and commerce exist on different planets. Businesses have a lot of practice dealing with the acceleration of change driven by technology and global economics, and these forces are now poised at the school house door. The students inside need business and education to unite on their behalf. Our willingness to meet this challenge is the key to their future -- and to the future economic security of our country.
Roberts T. Jones is president and chief executive officer of the National Alliance of Business and a nationally recognized expert in the workforce development field.