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Are Students Graduating Ready for the RIGHT Career in This Economy?

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August 16, 2011 05:18 pm

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Maria’s blog post from last week about how “college ready” doesn’t necessarily mean “career ready” got me to thinking about another common theme that staff here at the Alliance have heard from state leaders, business executives, and others about the job crisis: Contrary to most individuals’ beliefs, there are jobs out there — there are just not enough skilled workers to fill them.

What? With unemployment remaining stubbornly in the 9 percent range, how can there be jobs that aren’t being filled?

It turns out there are serious concerns with how well the country’s population is prepared to fill jobs that industries create as part of the struggling economic recovery. A July article in BusinessWeek harkened back to the 1980s recession and reminded readers of how writer and management theorist Peter Drucker warned that the United States faced “a growing mismatch between jobs and available labor supply.”

According to the article, Narayana Kocherlakota, president of the Minneapolis Fed, asserted last year that about one-third of the nation’s joblessness results from a discrepancy between the skills employers seek and those available workers possess. The most recent McKinsey Global Institute report on jobs confirms this idea in its survey of over 2,000 employers, which found:

  • 64 percent of companies report having positions for which they often cannot find qualified applicants, with management, scientists, and engineers topping the list.
  • 41 percent of companies that are planning to grow have had positions open for 6 months or longer.

The McKinsey report cites the effect of a “jobless recovery,” in which companies respond to economic challenges by restructuring, realigning, and reorganizing work. When growth takes place, it is not “old” jobs that come back, but rather completely new jobs that are vastly different from the positions that were eliminated during layoffs a year or two before. For many unemployed workers, new jobs in their field may be in new locations, require new skills, or their old job may simply no longer exist.

McKinsey also raises the concern that students entering the workforce are not obtaining the skills that are currently in demand, and they may not have complete information about what those desired skills might be.

This concern was echoed in a recent report from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences and the Regional Educational Laboratory Appalachia. The report studied the availability of career and technical education program areas in Tennessee, concentrations completed by graduates in these areas, and how those concentrations aligned with the actual job market. The report evaluated the information region by region, particularly high-wage and high-growth jobs.

The study found alignment between program availability, the percentage of graduates in different areas, and the presence of actual jobs in those fields varied greatly by region. For example, the percentage of people employed in agriculture ranged from 1 to 4 percent in various Tennessee regions. But the percentage of students concentrating in that area in Tennessee career and technical education programs ranged from 1 to 30 percent. As a result, several regions seem to be training hundreds of students for careers in an area that does not offer many jobs in their region.

Meanwhile, the percentage of people employed in business technology ranged from 18 to 25 percent, but the number of students concentrating in that area was only 7 to 16 percent. In one region, only 7 percent of students concentrated in business technology, but 19 percent of people worked in that field, meaning there is room for more students to study for the career. In addition, the average salary in the business technology field in that region for people with bachelor’s degrees was over $55,000, and the field is expected to grow at 7.4 percent per year, making it a moderate growth field.

Today’s job market is evolving so quickly that it is even more imperative students, career and technical education program directors, as well as high school and college counselors stay on top of the most up-to-date employment data to ensure students have all necessary information about viable long and short-term career opportunities both in their communities, nationwide, and around the world.

Jobs for the Future recently reported about the challenges community colleges face in obtaining detailed, current information about skills and demands in addition to looking at developing technologies in “spidering” technologies that aggregate online job advertisements. This is just one example of the kind of innovation that needs to continue for high schools and colleges to ensure students graduate career and college ready – for actual careers that exist in today’s rapidly changing economy.

Terri Duggan Schwartzbeck is a Senior Policy Associate at the Alliance for Excellent Education.

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