by Nancy Hoffman, Senior Advisor, Jobs for the Future
Bob Schwartz, Senior Research Fellow, Harvard Graduate School of Education
Over the last generation, it has become clear that something has gone awry in how the United States prepares its young people for life. In spite of millions of young people pursuing university education, fewer than one in three young Americans successfully attain a bachelor’s degree, while millions of good middle-skills jobs go begging because of our failure to build programs to equip young people with the skills and credentials to fill them. In a climate of “university for all” only 20% of young Americans enrol in career and technical education programs, the US version of Vocational Education and Training. This struck us as both a problem and an opportunity crying out for a public policy response.
So when the opportunity arose to come to the OECD for three months in 2010 to participate in the last phase of the landmark Learning for Jobs study, we took leave from our respective jobs (Nancy, at Jobs for the Future, a national NGO; Bob, at Harvard Graduate School of Education) and headed to Paris. We had already had the privilege of working as experts on country reviews for OECD, and knew this would give us the opportunity to go deeper into how school-based VET operated around the world and in particular in northern European countries like Germany, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands and Switzerland. Learning for Jobs highlighted the essential characteristics of school-based VET. Little did we know, however, that our decision to get involved would lead two years later to the creation of a national network of U.S. states and regions committed to reshaping vocational education and training in the US. We have chronicled the first five years of the Pathways to Prosperity Network in our book, Learning for Careers, published in October 2017 by the Harvard Education Press.
Back at Harvard, in 2011 Bob fed the big lessons from Learning for Jobs into a new report, Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century. The Pathways report generated such strong interest among states that we invited a handful of states to come together in a mostly self-funded network based at JFF to act on the findings and recommendations in the report. Fast forward to 2017. The JFF Pathways team of 12 now works with 14 states and about 60 economic regions within those states to build pathways systems. A major initiative funded by JP Morgan Chase and led by the organization of chief school officers (state ministers) entitled, “New Skills for Youth,” is also strengthening states’ capacity to build career pathways, and myriad promising regional initiatives are underway to infuse greater career information and experience into the high school experience. Examples of Delaware and Tennessee’s pathways development and progress to date can be found here and here as well as in our book.
Most of the new initiatives, while inspired especially by the German and Swiss dual systems, do not now resemble these – and most likely never will. Nonetheless, some lessons from the best systems do influence the strategies states are implementing. Learning for Careers identifies three characteristics of strong European VET that can be translated into the US educational, economic, and cultural context:
- youth in VET take on adult responsibility in workplaces and demonstrate both maturity and technical skill – active learning outside of classrooms meets the developmental needs of adolescents to take “safe” risks, to be challenged, and to test out behaviour in an intergenerational setting;
- employers act willingly in their self-interest and as partners to the state in building a pipeline of young professionals – employers willingly mentor young people as a social responsibility and as a contribution to social cohesion; and,
- VET has a secret glue in the employer associations and chambers that aggregate employer need and train for a sector, not for a specific company – such sector organizations can play this role because of a common qualifications system which specifies competencies, behaviours, and knowledge required. (Non-governmental groups in the U.S. are haltingly attempting to build a qualifications system.)
If a European VET aficionado were to visit Delaware, Minnesota, Ohio, or Tennessee, she would see high schools and their tertiary partners building pathways in such fields as tech, advanced manufacturing, and healthcare and NGOs urging employers to open their doors to 16 and 17-year-old apprentices and interns. And perhaps most important, she would hear a difficult conversation about inequality and economic mobility. Our argument is that if through our Network we can enable many more low-income youth to enter the labor market equipped with the technical expertise, professional behaviors, and social networks now enjoyed primarily by children of privilege, we can put them on a path to economic mobility – a benefit for them, their families, and society at large.
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