Connect Teenagers to the World of Work

What's the single best idea to jumpstart job creation?

I agree with Frederick Hess that overhauling career and technical education would be the single best way to fight unemployment. According to research from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, between now and 2018, the fastest-growing occupations will be "mid-skill" jobs--like dental hygienist, construction manager, police officer, paralegal, and electrician--that require an associate's degree or occupational certificate, but not a four-year college education.

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Unfortunately, if we wait until adulthood to offer workers vocational training, we risk leaving far too many of them behind. Unemployment among young people without a college degree is high, at 22.5 percent, and staggering among young people without a high school degree, at 42.7 percent. And with about half of inner-city high school students dropping out, a full 18 percent of 16 to 24-year olds are considered "disconnected youth"--neither enrolled in school nor working, stuck rudderless in a harshly unforgiving economy.

Such individuals, if they are lucky enough to find work, often become mired in low-wage, service sector jobs with few employee benefits and unstable hours. There are other options, but we need public schools to do their part in guiding students toward them. This means eschewing nice-sounding "college for all" rhetoric and instead embracing curricular reforms that introduce teenagers to all of the many opportunities available to them in the world of work.

In California, Linked Learning schools require students to enroll in college-prep academic classes, but also to complete several internships or apprenticeships in fields such as biotechnology, media, and engineering. Rhode Island's MET schools connect low-income teenagers to local businesses and community groups for on-the-job learning. And outside Albany, every student at Tech Valley High School completes a professional externship of their choice during the month of January, in fields ranging from baking to video game design to train conducting.

This isn't the nefarious "tracking" of yesteryear, but rather an effort to introduce young people to the ways in which their education can serve them on the job market. Students are less likely to drop-out and more likely to enjoy school when they see their classes as relevant to their future. High-quality vocational training opens doors for kids who haven't been reached by a more traditional curriculum, and prepares more Americans for the real jobs the economy is producing.

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Dana Goldstein is a staff writer at The Marshall Project. She is the author of the forthcoming book The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession.

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