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From Commencement to Advancement: How Educators and Employers Must Transform the Learn and Work Narrative

June 24, 2022

At a Glance

JFF’s ‘Big Blur’ proposal calls for breaking down the boundaries between education and employment, and preparing young students for stable, sustainable careers.

Nancy Hoffman Senior Advisor
Practices & Centers

How do young people define a “good life”? They probably don’t frame it in the same terms that adults often have in mind when they ask, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Teenagers looking to the future are asking themselves: “What do I want my life to be like in the future?”

The Youth Occupational Identity Formation research project asked that question to nearly 4,000 Black and Latinx youth and young people from households with lower incomes. Their visions for the future include having health, wealth, stability, and control over their lives. It means being part of a family, including being a parent if they choose, being socially well-connected and engaged, and giving back to their communities. And they see a good job as a means to that good life. For these young people, ages 15 to 21, the lens was broader than getting an education; their aspirations began with a satisfying career that would enable the rest.

Our public narratives about education need to catch up with the times and reflect how young people think about their paths. We’ve long said that graduation is an ending, and commencement is a beginning. In truth, neither high school graduation nor a college commencement without career preparation is the milestone it once was.

To move forward successfully on the journey from adolescence to early adulthood to economic security, most young people do need a career-focused form of higher education—an industry certification, a set of verified skills gained through work, a completed apprenticeship, an applied associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree. But just as imperative, they need work experience and a network of adults who support them.

Right now, our fragmented education system leaves far too many young people without the skills, knowledge, and experience they need to achieve economic security: 49 percent of 25-to-29-year-olds have no postsecondary credential. It’s time to rewrite the education narrative, moving our focus away from the idea of endings and beginnings, and shifting to systems that support education and career preparation simultaneously.

At Jobs for the Future (JFF), we have a plan for this in mind: the Big Blur, a policy recommendation that calls for blurring the dividing lines between education and work and creating pathways to equitable economic advancement.

Why It’s Time to Consider a ‘Big Blur’ in Education

JFF’s Big Blur proposal argues that it’s time to erase the arbitrary dividing lines between high school, college, and career preparation and create a new model and new systems that better prepare 16-to-20-year-olds for careers.

A key aspect of that preparation is to shift the focus from graduation to economic security—without which young people will face challenges to their future well-being and won’t have the wherewithal to start families, contribute to their communities, and enjoy leisure pursuits.

Work-based learning is not a “nice to have,” but an essential component of the blurred system because work experience is what employers seek and see as a signal that a candidate is ready for a good job. One Strada study showed that fewer than three in 10 employers believe that recent college graduates are sufficiently prepared in the skills they deem most important for the workforce. A second Strada survey “found that only about a third of college students feel prepared for either the job market (34 percent) or the workforce (36 percent).” One reason: work experiences are currently offered inadequately in postsecondary education. This mismatch needs a radical fix.

JFF’s Work-Based Learning Framework

Work-based learning looks beyond the classroom to expand academic and technical learning and accelerate advancement along career pathways. Work-based learning is defined as students or workers completing meaningful job tasks in a workplace and thereby developing a readiness for work and knowledge and skills that support entry into or advancement within a particular career field. Work-based learning supports a continuum of lifelong learning and skill development for a range of workers and learners—K-12 students, young adults, college students, adult jobseekers, and incumbent workers. Read the full framework here.

Our reimagined Big Blur ecosystem features new structures that aren’t high schools or community colleges, but developmentally sequenced configurations of academics integrated with early career exploration, short-term exposure to career options, and actual work experiences such as paid internships, apprenticeships, and workplace projects. These new institutions would be aligned to labor market demands, with the academic instruction and work-based learning programs leading to postsecondary credentials with labor market value and transferable credit.

This emphasis on work-based learning provided in high school and postsecondary educational institutions isn’t just about better career preparation; it’s critical to dismantling economic inequality. All young people benefit from experiencing different workplaces with mentorship and supervision, but affluent students often experience such career exploration using their families’ networks, and high schools serving higher-income students often provide student-designed research and service-learning internships. Such opportunities are rarer in schools and community colleges serving students from low-income backgrounds.

Reimagining the Talent Pipeline

Employers often refer to “building the talent pipeline,” but that idea, just like the words graduation and commencement, needs to be redefined for today’s needs. Effective pipeline building means that employers must open their doors to potential employees long before posting a job ad—even several years in advance. Educators know how to put work-based learning programs in place to prepare the individuals who will make up the talent pipeline. They also know young people who will be eager workers and learners, but young people need opportunities, a welcoming environment, training—and yes, paid internships—to prepare for careers.

One provocative move to launch this shift is for employers to reconsider where to direct their education benefits. A growing body of data shows that only 2 percent of eligible workers are taking up their employers’ offers of tuition and education benefits.

That minimal degree of uptake hints at what educators already know: If you are working full time, have a family, and are stressed about making ends meet, taking on college coursework is daunting. What if those education benefits were made available to community college students who were eager to prepare for job openings but needed a year of tuition-free study to get ready? What if funding funneled dollars not only to colleges serving incumbent workers but also to students who were promised positions if they completed a year of preparation?

How Educators, Employers, and Leaders Can Begin to ‘Blur’

As I write this, David Banks, the new chancellor of the New York City public schools, has announced a new north star vision: “Education,” he says, “will lead to a rewarding career and long-term economic security for every student. Each student’s learning journey must be more relevant, contextualized, engaging, and career-connected to help activate students’ passion and sense of purpose.”

Can Big Apple employers step up—they have the job openings already—and make work-based learning a reality for all of the city’s young people? Can employers in other parts of the country work with educators to build talent pipelines that fulfill a major goal of the Big Blur and support young people’s aspirations of moving forward into the future lives they aspire to?

We know that more and better school learning alone is not the solution to the host of social, economic, and political inequalities that impede so many young people from transitioning to a productive, independent, and satisfying adulthood. In fact, a high school diploma has little value in the labor market and a college degree without career preparation can leave a young person in debt and with few options for good jobs. For example, about 40 percent of community college graduates end up with a general education degree that is little better than a high school diploma in the labor market.

To realize the promise of the Big Blur, high schools and colleges must blur or blend their career preparation offerings, and employers must become partners in shifting the narrative.

Today’s adults can’t follow “What do you want to be when you grow up?” with “Just get a degree and all will be well.” Instead, the message should be: “We’re here to help you on your way to economic security by investing in your future, and ours.”

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