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Expanding Career Pathways

In the wake of a presidential order to increase apprenticeships, a look at what it means to connect education and job prep — and how to do it well

August 7, 2017
Row of students in medical training class, with smiling woman in front

A disparity looms large in the United States between the career training most young people receive and the availability of well-paying employment. Just over half of 25 year olds have any sort of postsecondary degree, but the vast majority of jobs — including almost all of those that can sustain a family — require a credential beyond a high school diploma.

President Trump’s recent executive order to increase the number of apprenticeships from 500,000 to 5 million could help close the gap. We spoke to Robert B. Schwartz, a senior research fellow and professor emeritus at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, about the promise of apprenticeships — and what it will take to expand their number.

For the past five years, with Jobs for the Future, Schwartz has co-led Pathways to Prosperity, a national network of states and regions that links high schools, community colleges, and employer organizations to increase the number of young people prepared to thrive in the labor market. Last year, with Harvard Business School Professor Joseph Fuller, he helped launch the Middle Skills Gap Initiative to connect employers and educators in the work of building a much-needed cadre of highly skilled middle-level workers.

"At both ends of the continuum, among both successful students who make it through college and those who never get started, there are significant consequences of our failure to pay more attention to preparing young people for work and careers."

Why do we need to be thinking about career paths as early as high school?

There’s a huge loss in potential income among young people. Too many kids go off to college with no career plan, choose majors with no thought about the labor market, and then graduate with upwards of $25,000 of debt and few employable skills. And those are the kids that finish college. College dropouts — roughly four in 10 who enroll in a four-year college — are even worse off in the labor market. And in worst shape of all are the 3 million 16- to 24-year-olds who aren’t in school or in work. They either dropped out of high school or completed high school without any job experience. So at both ends of the continuum, among both relatively successful students who make it through college and those who never get started, there are significant consequences of our failure to pay more attention to preparing young people for work and careers.

At Pathways to Prosperity, we’re trying to give much more attention to the career purposes of education. We’re trying to build systems that span the last years of high school and first two years of postsecondary education, particularly community and technical colleges. We want to help more kids achieve that first postsecondary credential, either a certificate or a two-year degree with value in the labor market, and then get them started in fields with high growth and high demand. For example, there are hundreds of thousands of jobs in fields like IT and health care that require some training beyond high school, but not necessarily a four-year degree.

Vocational high schools already exist. How is the career pathways movement different from that?

We’re big fans of the strong vocational high schools. The national evidence suggests that they have higher graduation rates and postsecondary enrollment rates than most comprehensive high schools. The problem is that only a relative handful of young people have access to these schools. Massachusetts, for example, has a very strong network of regional voc-tech schools, but only 20 percent of kids are enrolled.

We’re also big fans of the career academy model, but by and large these programs are designed primarily to motivate kids to complete high school, not necessarily to equip them with skills and credentials that make them employable.

This is partly about career and technical education, but it’s not limited to that. The career pathways movement is about applied learning and trying to make that a more central theme in the way education is delivered.

"In many European countries, companies aren’t sitting back and then wringing their hands when kids want jobs but don’t have the necessary skills. Instead, employers get in at the front end. They define the standards, they help shape the programs, and they provide paid internships or apprenticeships."

How do you think President Trump’s new interest in apprenticeships might impact this work?

It’s hard to tell. It doesn’t look like there will be any new money from the federal government to help implement his ambitious goal of a ten-fold increase in apprenticeships. I also think there’s still the challenge of showing people what we mean by “apprenticeship.” In the United States, the average apprentice is 28 and until recently was mostly disconnected from the education system. The good news is that apprenticeships have been expanding into white collar occupations, and are increasingly connected to community and technical colleges. But we only have about 500,000 apprentices in the U.S. That’s a tiny fraction of the workforce. The President says that we’re going to grow that number to 5 million, but I don’t think he has any strategy to back that up.

I will say that, thanks largely to President Obama’s advocacy, there is now more traction around the career pathways agenda — more interest in apprenticeship, more support for community colleges, and more recognition that we need to provide more options and choices for young people.

Switzerland and Germany have large-scale, successful career pathway systems. How have these countries been able to implement these programs? Why will it be difficult for the United States to create similar ones?

In many European countries, companies aren’t sitting back and then wringing their hands when kids want jobs but don’t have the necessary skills. Instead, employers get in at the front end. They define the standards, they help shape the programs, and most importantly, they provide paid internships or apprenticeships. U.S. employers don’t invest much in training for anybody except their managers and executives.

Some of it also is tradition. In Switzerland, 70 percent of kids, including 45 percent of the highest achievers, spend their last three years of high school doing a mix of classroom work and applied learning in the workplace. That’s just not the case in American schools, and it’s difficult to see that shift happening.

And mindsets are important. In the United States, most middle-class families believe that the only successful outcome for their kids is to go to a four-year college or university. Although only 60 percent of kids actually complete their degree within six years, it’s still a challenge to convince those kids’ parents that there are other routes to professional success.

"In the United States, most middle-class families believe that the only successful outcome for their kids is to go to a four-year college or university."

How do community colleges fit into the career pathways movement?

Community colleges are much likelier than high schools to be able to build relationships with employers. A lot of the best community colleges already do that. They run short-term, six-week customized programs that train employees from a specific company in a new skill. The next step is to use those relationships and to get employers to think about not just short-term retraining, but building pipelines for future employees.

One challenge is helping community colleges figure out strategies to give more priority to their workforce development function. In the south, community colleges were typically set up to enable those states to compete economically. But in states like New York and California, community colleges basically were created as open-access places where people could start their college work and then transfer to the upper division. And across the country, community colleges have multiple missions. Some serve adults coming back for avocational interests. So it’s tough to get these schools to see that they’re the one public institution we have that is designed to focus on workforce development.

What are the levers we need to pull to make this happen?

To really make progress in this field, we need political leaders, governors, mayors, and other policymakers to step up and make the case for change. In the three states where Pathways to Prosperity has made the most progress, it’s because political leaders have been able to articulate the gap between the economy the state wants to have and the current skill levels of its workforce, and they have prioritized investing in these career pathway systems as one piece of closing that gap.

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College and Career Education Policy K-12