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How educators can help fix the U.S. skills gap and give youth opportunities to thrive

Published: March 14, 2023

In the conclusion of our 3-part series examining the U.S. skills gap, we look at what educators and industry professionals can do to help solve the skills gap—and the opportunities they can give to youth across the nation. Catch up on part 1 and part 2.

Table of contents

    Education and the skills gap

    In America, the education system and the workforce don’t fit together. 

    We have a system that’s designed to send as many young people into higher education as possible. It’s one of the main outcomes schools are rated on nationally. And yet, dropout rates and the level of student debt strongly suggest that college just isn’t for everyone.

    The system isn’t working for industry, either. 

    Passing tests says very little about how a young person will perform in the workplace, and tests do nothing to develop the soft skills that do help people thrive whatever their career choice.

    As we’ve seen so far in this series, this situation has led to skills gaps across industries and a shortage of workforce-ready entry-level candidates. This has consequences on a national level, as the U.S. faces major challenges that need innovative mindsets to overcome.

    And for young people, it means a lack of preparedness for life after high school. It means a low financial ceiling at best. Generational cycles of poverty at worst.

    But we stand in an era of historical opportunity for the education system. In the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, schools have record levels of funding to change the fates of their students.

    With a little help from industry, schools can help fix the skills gap and break cycles of poverty.

    Let’s explore how.

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    Why record learning enrichment funding can help fix the skills gap

    Since the first Covid lockdown, Federal and State-level Government has funneled massive amounts of funding into education. The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) fund, now in its third iteration, was passed as part of the original Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) act to help keep everyone and everything afloat as society shut down. Schools are required to use ESSER funding for many things focused on keeping schools running in line with the latest Covid-related policy, but with an increasing emphasis on learning loss and the enrichment required to get students back on track. This covers afterschool, summer camps, and all other interstitial learning (learning in the gaps around the regular school day).

    Read our guide to ESSER funding here

    The focus on learning enrichment has seen some states massively increase their focus, and funding, on learning enrichment, or extended learning. California, for example, has developed the Expanded Learning Opportunities Program (ELO-P), which has led to record levels of education funding in California. With both ESSER and ELO-P, there is an increasing focus on including underrepresented students in such enrichment programs, including those that are experiencing homelessness. It all means that more students will have access to learning outside of the school day.

    Read our guide to ELO-P funding here

    This presents an amazing opportunity to solve the skills gap and help students who became disengaged during the lockdowns discover passions for careers they may not have known existed—and build in some practical skillsets such as those needed in industries hit by skills gaps. 

    Learning the skills of tomorrow's workplace in the safety of the classroom environment. Copyright Work ED.

    How can educators help solve the skills gap? Why STEM alone isn’t enough

    Schools struggle to teach STEM effectively and many students, particularly students of color, fail to reap the benefits.

    There has for a while been a movement among education researchers for a greater focus on topics that can help solve the major problems in the world: science, technology, engineering and Math, known as STEM (sometimes written as STEM/CS to include computer science, or STEAM to include art). These are the skills needed to solve the biggest problems faced by the manufacturing and technology industries, which is exactly where the US is experiencing the most skills gaps. 

    However, schools struggle to teach STEM effectively and many students, particularly students of color, fail to reap the benefits. This has a real impact on students’ future earning potential, as STEM occupations pay over twice the median annual salary of non-STEM occupations.

    Many students may be failing at STEM, and missing out on the financial benefits of learning those skills, because they are being exposed to them in the same way as everything else in school—through standardized testing. This approach simply does not suit many students’ learning style.

    Besides, the hard skills that STEM targets, while necessary, don’t solve the soft skills issue many industries face when trying to bring on new workers. All the technical know-how in the world isn’t necessarily going to make someone a team player or develop that “creative destruction” mindset we discussed in part 2

    Young people need an opportunity to learn in ways that suit their individual needs and in ways that help develop the soft skills that give them access to high-earning careers.

    How we do that may be surprising—because taking these pathways used to be seen as a failure. But that's changing.

    Learning from the experts: CISO Arlenee Lopez (front row, left) and Head of Cyber Education at Work ED, Ben Crenshaw (3rd from right) have been teaching cybersecurity programs to high schoolers in NYC. Copyright Work ED.

    Developing workforce readiness to fix the skills gap: CTE, WBL and SEL

    Because the education system has for decades had one ultimate measure of success (getting more students into college), there has been an unfortunate side effect: career and technical education has come to be seen as a pathway for young people who are deemed incapable of “more”.

    This is a shame. It’s also inaccurate. The job market is not what it used to be back when the bachelor degree was everything. As we discussed in part 1, jobs are constantly changing—as are the resources to learn to prove yourself capable.

    Thankfully, the funding to develop career and technical education is still in place—and quite generous. And, with a narrative shift, could be a way to propel young people into all kinds of career trajectories. 

    Career and technical education (CTE)

    The Career and Technical Education Act, introduced in 2006 and updated in 2016, provides $1.3 billion annually for career and technical education (CTE) programs, both for students and adults. CTE programs have had a positive impact on students’ school performance. And there are currently many ways for local education authorities (LEAs) to use funding to improve CTE opportunities for more students.

    CTE programs can take many approaches to develop workforce readiness. Apprenticeships and internships are the classic approaches, but both usually come at the end of high school. CTE approaches can be used at an earlier age to help energize youth at high school age—to help prevent dropouts and improve attendance and behavior while developing a career mindset in students before graduation.

    Read our guide to CTE

    Work-based learning (WBL)

    Work-based learning (WBL) is a national initiative led by the Center for Career and Technical Education. The philosophy of WBL is that learning happens best when done through experience—learning the skills needed to be successful in the workplace by doing the work. 

    WBL means solving problems that those who do the job have to face every day, and developing all the in-demand soft skills that we mentioned in parts 1 and 2, such as communication, collaboration, problem-solving, project management, and innovation

    WBL traditionally means on-the-job work, as in being in a physical workplace, working for an actual company. However, schools can use WBL as a learning framework without setting foot in a physical workplace. The center for CTE states that WBL can “range from career awareness to career exploration”, and while its framework suggests that WBL programs should contain “application of academic, technical, and employability skills in a work setting,” the pandemic showed us that many companies don’t need a physical workplace to get work done. This is true most of all for software companies, particularly work that can be done entirely on a laptop, such as cybersecurity. 

    Schools can use WBL as a learning framework without setting foot in a physical workplace.

    Schools can use software that safely simulates the work environment. That means they only need a laptop to run WBL programs. They can also bring in cybersecurity experts to oversee simulated work-scenarios and provide workshops, training, mentorship and evaluation for students. Funding can cover all of these things, making such programs achievable for any school. 

    This approach is not only relatively straightforward to set up, it also breaks down accessibility barriers for students. Software can be accessed from anywhere, and can have built-in features, such as screen readers, which can help students with physical disabilities to learn and access information in ways that accommodate their disabilities—not all physical workplaces can make such accommodations. There are already successful examples out there of accessible software being used, with apps like Sora, which provides digital libraries for schools, showing the benefit of digitalized services for improving accessibility for students and logistics for educators. 

    Afterschool also has the benefit of existing outside the reach of standardized testing, meaning that those running the courses are free to explore alternatives to “As” and SAT scores. LEAs are, though, required to prove that extended learning programs do help with student development. Luckily, there are grading frameworks that can help demonstrate the improvement in skills rather than the ability to pass a test. 

    Read our guide to WBL

    Social and emotional learning (SEL)

    Most existing education enrichment funding focuses on the need to support student social and emotional development. This is a welcome change of emphasis away from standardized testing—and LEAs can use student development as a way to measure program success by adopting a social and emotional learning framework.

    Social and emotional learning (SEL) has a long history and much research backing up its effectiveness. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) explains that SEL “is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals.” 

    The benefits of SEL go beyond individual student emotional development, expanding out into the community via “authentic school-family-community partnerships to establish learning environments and experiences that feature trusting and collaborative relationships, rigorous and meaningful curriculum and instruction, and ongoing evaluation.” 

    The benefits of SEL go beyond individual student emotional development, expanding out into the community.

    SEL’s demonstrated effectiveness has seen its use grow in the education system. California has developed SEL initiatives and implementation frameworks state wide. This came after research conducted in 2020—a time frame that crossed over the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic—that showed how many students were struggling to achieve good grades in California’s diverse student population, particularly students of color and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and those experiencing homelessness. 

    Read our guide to SEL

    School districts can use frameworks like SEL to track students’ development of the soft skills that business leaders say they lack, in a safe environment that lets students of all learning abilities improve their knowledge in practical, memorable ways.

    This, however, is a lot to put on schools. How do School Districts know what skills are in demand from industry? 

    This is where industry and education need to join forces.

    Learning frameworks recap:

    • Career and technical education (CTE): Helps young people understand the hard and soft skills needed for a specific career. Modern CTE courses include topics such as cybersecurity and website development.

    • Work-based learning (WBL): Traditionally, WBL involves gaining direct exposure to specific industries by learning in the physical workplace, on the job. Thanks to the rise of digital skills, WBL can now be applied to classroom learning.

    • Social and emotional learning (SEL): SEL places the emphasis on growing as humans, teaching young people the benefits of collaboration, openness, and self awareness. 

    See these frameworks in action from the recent Work ED video game & business startup winter programs in Madera, CA. Copyright Work ED.

    Connecting education enrichment with industry demands

    School Districts have all the funding available they need to run effective learning programs—but how do they know what to run? Do educators have the knowledge to teach what’s needed to fill the skills gap?

    They might not, but leaders running the companies that are busy keeping the lights on across America do. 

    Industry leaders know what skills their industry is lacking. Right now, they can’t find enough skilled labor to fill those gaps. But what if that labor was available on their doorstep?

    Nothing inspires like the people doing the job themselves, who are out there being the example young people need to see what they can achieve.

    Industry leaders can get involved in CTE and WBL programs. They can be the inspiration young people need, and help develop curriculum that helps develop the hard and soft skills needed in their industry while exposing young people to high-earning careers they didn’t know were accessible to them.

    And while they can’t necessarily commit to teaching full time, they can also educate the educators: give teachers the means and qualifications to teach the skills missing in their industry.

    There are already examples of this happening. We discussed the skills gaps in cybersecurity in part 2 of this series. Cyber initiatives are beginning to pop up across the country to help fix the skills gaps that are leaving the country at risk.

    CYBER.ORG is the “academic initiative of the Cyber Innovation Center”, with the mission to “empower educators as they prepare the next generation to succeed in the cyber workforce of tomorrow.” Begun in 2012 as a collaboration with the Department of Homeland Security, CYBER.ORG has to date trained over 21,000 educators to teach cybersecurity skills. 

    Learn more about the tutoring for teachers course available in our cybersecurity discovery program

    Let’s look at this from an organizational point of view. We discussed in part 2 how organizations are struggling with a range of issues when it comes to skills gaps: excess retirements, “the Great Resignation” and “the War for Talent”. Millions of dollars are being spent trying to figure this out, mostly through paying more for experienced workers.

    But this is missing a vital opportunity. By partnering with local schools, organizations can not only contribute knowledge and mentorship to the next generation, they can make a direct link to talent pipelines, too: they can train students in their local communities, creating a system where they can provide those students opportunities and hire them.

    Once hired, organizations can contribute to a student’s continued education. This can be an extra incentive to stick with an organization: companies can pay for their entry-level employees to earn extra certification or degrees in return for an employee staying with the organization. Many companies already offer continuing education incentives.

    This is an attractive incentive to younger students who don’t have strong financial family backing, helping them avoid the financial risk of student debt. They are paid well, building wealth, and gaining knowledge, all while feeling a deep connection to the organization and work they do. 

    This creates a true bridge: an end-to-end education-to-employment pathway that turns into continuous education and an engaged, constantly learning workforce that is in a career they want to be in. 

    Industry doesn’t have to be a victim of the skills gap. Instead, organizations can collaborate with school districts to be an agent for change. 

    Interested in learning how your company can contribute to CTE in schools? Visit our industry page to see how you can get involved.

    Visit our industry partner page

    How to fix the skills gap

    The skills gap is a vital issue to solve for America. It was a problem before the pandemic, and the learning loss created by lockdowns pushed millions more youth further away from even a basic level of education. 

    But there’s hope.

    We are in an age of record levels of federal and state funding. Funding that’s designed to reach more students than ever before, especially those that have been left behind in the past. Young people who have a unique perspective on the world, who may have the latent skills needed to secure America’s future, while breaking the cycle of poverty they were born into. They just need an opportunity to shine, and the safety and support to keep pushing towards a brighter future.

    School districts have unprecedented autonomy and funding to create afterschool and enrichment programs. It is up to school districts what programs they run. 

    Educators have an opportunity to transform how education prepares young people to enter the workforce. They can use funding to turn schools into work-preparation powerhouses, enhancing the curriculum with learning frameworks such as CTE, WBL and SEL that allow young people to discover their potential and learn the skills that can literally change their lives.

    They can do so by partnering with those who know what skills are needed to thrive.

    As for industry leaders, they can help solve their skills gaps by looking to the talent hidden in plain sight in communities across the nation

    Organizations don’t have to wait around for talent to emerge. They can take an active role in cultivating the skills needed to fill their talent gaps, creating new, local hubs within communities on their doorstep. Wealth and knowledge can spread locally when the right pathways are in place.

    Everything we need to bridge the skills gap is available. But, to use an old cliche, it’s the shots you don’t take that you regret the most. 

    We can enhance the education system to pull millions out of poverty and create a safer, better-functioning nation for everyone. A nation ready to solve the great problems facing us today and in the future.

    Will we take that shot?

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