Why our old approach to college is putting a new generation at risk

Society has done a huge disservice to young people by relying on outdated educational and workforce training models developed 50 years ago. Our one-size-fits-all approach that promotes college as the single path to a profitable, high-skilled profession is putting both the economy and an entire generation at risk.

We face a national crisis of rising college costs, decreasing degree-requiring jobs, and employer frustration with the younger generations in the workplace. Meanwhile, we’re pushing young people to obtain college degrees while simultaneously ignoring the importance of also acquiring valuable work skills. As a result, only 1 in 5 students feel prepared for today’s job market. We’re saddling them with enormous college debt for degrees that may not pay off.

Today’s emphasis should no longer be just about getting young people ready for college. It should be about preparing them for careers for which college is one of many available pathways. College is a great postsecondary option – if their career path requires it. Too many young people today go just to go, and too often, because of lack of forethought or direction, they choose a field of study where there either are no jobs available or they aren’t adequately trained for a profession.

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What young people don’t often know – because no one tells them before they venture into higher education – is that there are great, living-wage careers to pursue that don’t require them to go to college. Many of today’s high-paying, high-skilled careers require a specialized industry credential or certification, not a college degree.

Sending young people off to study for degrees without regard for whether they’re actually being trained for a viable profession has resulted in an alarming skills gap in today’s workforce. Employers are starving for people with hands-on skills and experiences that come from certifications, apprenticeships, licensures, and career training programs. A recent study showed that by 2025, the United States will be short 11 million qualified workers to support the economy.

Manufacturers around the country, for example, are in desperate need of precision machinists. But attracting the younger generation to the work is remarkably difficult because of the stigma that only lower-performing students choose this kind of career. Still, the field offers immediate employment, high wages, and advanced opportunities. Far from the old stereotype of a dead-end factory job, work in this field now ranges from a robot operator to a machine builder to a computer automated manufacturing engineer.

Students in both middle and high schools need to be made aware of the plethora of career avenues available and their respective training and salary prospects. Intentional career planning early on will allow them to choose advanced education purposefully and give them a better chance of reaching their goals.

Prioritizing early career exploration also:

1. Gives young people a sense of direction

Once they’re made aware that their interests can translate into exciting career opportunities, they can begin exploring the appropriate academic pre-requisites and early training opportunities that will catapult them into a promising future.

2. Answers the “why” behind their high school education

“Because I said so” is not enough of a reason for Gen Y and Zers who want to know the “why” behind all of what’s asked of them. Opening their eyes to the pathway toward their chosen career can spark enthusiasm to perform at a higher level. They’ll understand the relevance of their education to the life and career they want to achieve.

3. Invites more experiential learning

When teachers, coaches, and counselors know what careers their students want to pursue, they can connect the coursework with the attainment of their students’ dreams. Assignments, field trips, guest speakers, service projects and more can allow students to explore their interests and prepare for their various career paths.

4. Allows them to acquire skills and industry knowledge that can empower young entrepreneurs

Internships, apprenticeships, and other hands-on opportunities are just a few of the ways young people can begin to excel in their fields of interest. Studies show that students who are exposed to career options early on in their educational journey graduate high school in greater numbers (93% over the national average of 80%). Career-minded education gives students a distinct competitive advantage.

5. Positions them to know their objectives before investing time and money

Most young people have been taught to first pick a college to attend, then pick a major, and when they finally graduate, then decide what job they want to do and create a college resume for that job. But reversing that order would help direct them toward purpose-driven education and save them from having to figure out life with that enormous financial clock ticking.

Mark C. Perna is the author of the award-winning bestseller Answering Why: Unleashing Passion, Purpose, and Performance in Younger Generations that Publishers Weekly calls “perceptive … reasonable and thought-provoking.” Mark is the founder and CEO of TFS and has over 20 years of experience in coaching educational organizations and businesses on today’s unique intergenerational workforce and the hiring, training and retention of the newest generations. Follow @MarkPerna.

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