The Promise of Career Prep

This guest editorial appeared in the Times-Picayune, and I wanted to share it with you.

Career prep can improve lives, aid local economy: Leslie Jacobs

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In New Orleans, less than half (48 percent) of African-American men of working age are employed – the rest are either out of work or out of the workforce. This employment crisis threatens the livelihoods of individuals and families, as well as the fabric of our city. Our new system of schools must evolve to prepare all of our students for meaningful careers.

Let’s be clear: Our schools have made tremendous gains.

Our K-8 schools have increased the percentage of eighth-graders performing on grade level in math and English from 28 percent pre-storm to 67 percent last spring, just one point shy of the state average.

The graduating class of 2013 is in much better shape than the class of 2005. In 2005, only about 50 percent of our high school students graduated. Today, close to 80 percent of our high school students will graduate. And we have increased the percentage of graduates qualifying for a four-year TOPS college scholarship from 16 percent to 26 percent.

These gains are truly impressive.

But what about the large percentage of our high school graduates who are not yet ready to succeed at a four-year college? How are we preparing them for jobs that provide livable wages and career opportunities?

The majority of jobs created in this country over the next decade will require more than a high school degree but less than a four-year college degree. Locally, our region will need 17,000 skilled workers over the next three years, and many of these will be in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Louisiana ranks third in the nation for STEM jobs that are available to those without a bachelor’s degree.

For example, consider careers in health care. A high school graduate can enroll in Delgado Community College’s two-year nursing program and become a Registered Nurse earning an average of $64,000 a year. A student can take courses at Delgado while in high school (dual enrollment) and graduate high school as a certified EKG medical technician making more than $30,000 a year plus benefits. New Orleans will need more than 2,500 nurses and 650 medical technicians in the next six years as the Veterans Affairs and University Medical Center hospitals open. And yet, no New Orleans high school is offering students the opportunity to dual enroll in Delgado to become a certified EKG medical technician upon high school graduation, and few are promoting the two-year nursing program Delgado offers.

Or consider this: There are more than 3,000 carpentry jobs currently available in metro New Orleans. High school students could dual enroll in carpentry courses at our community and technical colleges, complete a two-year program while in high school, attain industry certification and make between $35,000 and $60,000 annually.

The list goes on. There are thousands of jobs available in New Orleans today that are unfilled due to an unprepared and untrained workforce.

We have many schools, both K-8 and high schools, that are focused on the singular goal of having all students enroll in a four-year college. But there are none that believe their mission is to excel in career-technical training.

This problem is not unique to New Orleans. Career education fell out of favor years ago due to the real perception of inferior job and earning opportunities. However, this perception no longer aligns with today’s job market.

While we must continue to increase the number of graduates qualifying for four-year college scholarships, we must also recognize the need to prepare students for today’s technical workforce by offering them the option of a rigorous career education in high school, in partnership with industry and the community and technical colleges. We need all of our high schools to understand the career options offered by two-year degrees and provide more nuanced college counseling. Enrolling in a four-year college is not the right option for all students.

These new programs cannot be the programs of old – programs where students were left behind in remedial shop classes. These programs must be rigorous. They must be direct pipelines to living wage jobs and career opportunities. Business and industry need to act as partners, providing students with internships and part-time and summer employment. And these programs must be of the quality that any parent would consider enrolling their child. Preparing students for the careers of the future cannot be a ploy for lowering our expectations for what our students can achieve.

Perhaps most importantly, we need to change the dialogue. As a community, we need to expand our definition of success to include not only college preparation but also career and technical readiness. Ultimately, we should measure our success not just by college admissions but also by meaningful employment.

Let’s be the best at preparing our students for college, but let’s also be the best at providing them the option of rigorous career-technical training. Our new system of schools is among the most entrepreneurial and innovative systems in the country. It’s time to harness this incredible energy to provide quality educational and employment opportunities for all our children.