Stories abound about companies interviewing thousands of applicants to find just a qualified few. Not only do the applicants lack basic literacy, computation and communication skills, but they don't always know enough to show up to work on time or to dress appropriately. Many of them are further handicapped because they don't know how to learn whatever new skills their jobs may require in the future.
Out of this crisis has emerged the school-to-work educational reform movement. The school-to-work movement operates on the principle that responsibility for making sure young people leave the nation's high schools adequately prepared for work is shared through a unique hybrid partnership of educational, social and business interests. The goal of these partnerships is to ensure the nation's young people learn what they need while in school to successfully make the transition from the classroom to the workplace and are able to be "lifelong learners."
The school-to-work movement encompasses both integrating work-related skills into the classroom through school reform and teacher training, and giving students real working experiences through internships, apprenticeships and mentor relationships. Research is yet to determine the most effective combination of these school-to-work strategies. But the consensus, at least among business leaders, seems to be that if American employers want to be assured of an adequately trained workforce from which to pull the next generation of employees, they're going to have to embrace the school-to-work concept and hang in for the long haul. If that sounds tough, the alternative is harsher: A workforce that lacks basic reading, writing, communication and analytical skills means American business is less flexible and therefore less competitive. The spiral of ill effects descends from there: unhappy employees who can't keep up with a fast-changing workplace and can't move ahead, higher turnover, an economy that can't grow, fewer jobs and on and on.
HR has an important role to play in the school-to-work movement, and it's not just an advocacy role. HR should be actively involved in developing school-to-work programs, as well as personally involved by speaking to student and teacher groups in the community, letting teachers "job shadow" them, and sitting on school-to-work advisory boards.
The time is right for school-to-work initiatives.
Can school-to-work programs really bridge the gap when other attempts seem to have failed? Most experts say yes but that it's going to take time, maybe 15 or 20 years. J. D. Hoye, director of the School-to-Work Opportunities Office in Washington, D.C., thinks that with patience, broad support and greater employer involvement, the gap is bridgeable. "The goal for us is to offer opportunities for all students and to have all employers participate. I think that's realistic. But the important piece is that we as a country have both the will behind it and the patience. We traditionally expect instant results, but this isn't a short-term agenda. This is a long-term agenda that grows and improves as it goes."
School-to-work programs have been growing, albeit slowly, say some researchers. In 1994, to provide incentive for such programs, President Bill Clinton signed the School to Work Opportunities Act, which provides seed money to foster partnerships of school staff, business leaders, labor representatives and parents for the development of school-to-work transition programs. Since the president signed the legislation in 1994, just over $500 million in developmental and implementation grants has been awarded to 37 states, with some 1,800 schools, 135,000 employers and 500,000 students involved in programs nationwide. But, two years after the legislation, Public/Private Ventures (P/PV), a social policy research organization in Philadelphia, issued the "School to Work or School to What?" report, which examined the employer-involvement side of the equation. The report concluded that employer involvement is weak and many employers know little about school-to-work programs in general and work-based learning in particular. Moreover, the report warned, "If employers cannot be engaged effectively, then school-to-work reforms will be of only limited benefit.... "
In many ways, the American business and educational communities are intimate strangers. Employers have sat on educational advisory boards for years, frequently encouraged to do no more than rubber stamp the educators' agenda. Schools, edgy, perhaps, that big business will try to stick its nose in the classroom and run the whole show, often solicit the patronage of business, but not its partnership.
Running the whole show is, in fact, the last thing business people want to do. Instead, people in the business world see their role as helping schools reevaluate their mission and determine who their customers are -- which, of course, is the community. And that includes business.
Peter Butler, an engineering manager and former trainer for Procter & Gamble's Mehoopany, Pennsylvania, manufacturing plant, sees the American education system in a position similar to that which American business was in years ago. "Business and industry in America 15 years ago realized we needed to get on board with [the concept of] total quality, which is really nothing more than talking to your customers, finding out what they want and delivering it. Educators are at the beginning of that process.... "
What does making schools accountable for total quality look like? Traditionally, high schools have largely tracked students into college-bound and noncollege-bound tracks. But today, say school-to-work supporters, this long-held belief that school should only prepare students for college is at odds with the facts: According to Richard Kazis, vice president of policy and research for the Boston-based policy and research organization Jobs for the Future, only 24 percent of incoming college freshman actually complete a four-year degree. That figure matches up with the percentage of the labor force that's labeled "professional" -- about 20 percent, a level that has remained unchanged for the last 50 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. What doesn't match up, however, is the percentage of jobs that require "technically skilled" labor: 65 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a figure that has more than tripled since its 1950 level of 20 percent. That means the largest number of jobs require more than a high-school education, but less than a four-year degree.
The school-to-work movement hopes to realign school with reality. Under this model, career orientation would be presented to all students, eventually as early as kindergarten and elementary grades. Says Lynne Porter, coordinator of curriculum and instructional support at the North Orange County Regional Occupational Center in Anaheim, California, which provides pre-employment training, skills upgrading or retraining and career-preparation classes: "There have always been programs for bright kids and the ones with special needs. School-to-[work] is for all kids... [because] a real school-to-work program... starts giving students real-life skills in a way that simulates the real world."
According to Norena Badway, a small-business owner in Stockton, California, and a researcher with the National Center for Research in Vocational Education at the University of California, Berkeley, "All the tools exist for us to make the change; however, accountability is the only thing that will drive the change. And accountability and schools are in two different worlds. The business community is the only place that can demand accountability. That's how business can become usefully involved in the school-to-work movement."
Businesses benefit by involvement.
Kazis agrees businesses must begin partnering with schools but advises against looking at school-to-work programs as a quick fix for businesses' woes or schools' complex problems. "Education reform takes a long time. [Accomplishing change in] schools is difficult at best, and in many cases you're in school systems in which the capacity has been so weakened over time that the idea of innovation is really difficult to imagine, never mind to move forward."
But some schools are proving change can happen -- and with great results. Schools that have embraced school-to-work strategies such as the school-within-a-school approach of a career academy, which integrates academic and vocational curricula and includes career and technical applications within the field in classroom instruction, have been effective in raising retention rates by up to 70 percent in schools with high dropout figures. Not only do these programs keep kids in school long enough to learn the skills they need, they nurture students' intellectual and career development and present them with a clearer understanding of the pathways or transitions to the next step in their young lives after graduation from high school: work, for which they have already acquired some skills, or continuing their education.
That's good news for employers. An adequately prepared and satisfied workforce means less money and less time training new employees in skills they should've learned in school. Butler recognized this benefit when he was first introduced to the school-to-work movement at an industrial conference several years ago. "The folks [who arranged the conference] brought along a student from Williamsport [Pennsylvania], who had been in a youth apprenticeship program as a machinist at an aircraft engine manufacturing company for a couple of years. I came away impressed that a kid who had been going nowhere in ninth grade, not doing much academically, had turned around by the time he was a senior. He was a star by anybody's standards, academically and in terms of the results he was getting as a person. It looked to me like they were doing something right," says Butler, who now serves on the school-to-work advisory board for the National Alliance of Business (NAB).
The potential value to Procter & Gamble of school-to-work programs "leaped out" at Butler, who had been the site's training manager before he was engineering manager. (The Mehoopany plant employs 3,000 people and produces Bounty paper towels, Charmin toilet paper, and Pampers and Luvs diapers.) "The connection I made -- and I'd been looking at this problem as a training manager -- was that the average hiring age was around 30 [because younger candidates don't do well on skill and aptitude tests and don't have the maturity and attributes the company is looking for in a team-based environment]. If I could get a person ready to come to work here at age 18 or 20, I'm going to add 10 years on a career... right there.
"I came back from the conference, sat down, and drafted a memo outlining my points [supporting] why we should get involved," says Butler. One of the points Butler made in his memo was that by bringing in qualified new employees at age 18 or 20, he could cut his training costs by one-third. Butler estimates that Procter & Gamble spends $100,000 in money and resources to develop a technician over 10 years of his or her career. On a given day, says Butler, "probably 300 to 400 people [at the Mehoopany plant] are tied up in training. Annually, $15 million to $20 million has been going into training and developing the workforce. We have roughly the equivalent of 70 full-time people providing training."
Procter & Gamble gave Butler the go-ahead to start with three paid apprentice slots; now there are 18. Eighteen apprentices don't begin to meet Procter & Gamble's hiring needs, but it's a place to start, says Butler.
John Nelson, CEO of Norwest Bank Colorado, agrees that internship, mentoring and apprenticeship programs such as Procter & Gamble's are a positive first step in fostering a relationship between schools and business to build the skills of the future workforce. Norwest Bank, with 86 sites statewide, offers student internships, job shadowing and mentoring at many of them. Nelson -- who's a business spokesperson for the Colorado School-to-Career Partnership, a statewide initiative -- says he believes that programs like these will have a positive effect on the bank's future because "there's no better way to ensure the success of a business than to have highly productive, skilled employees... with a strong academic background, knowledge about the work environment and work skills."
Such programs already are paying off for The Segal Co., a New York City-based employee-benefits, human resources and actuarial consulting firm. Last year the company hired a young woman who had been mentored as a high school student by a Segal employee and then trained as an intern. Sheila Donath, a company vice president, coordinates Segal's mentoring and tutoring program with a local high school under the city's School Partnership Program. Donath has recruited 27 volunteers from the executive and staff ranks to tutor the high school students in math and reading, and to mentor others who need help with their studies or guidance about college choices. Donath says that besides "providing a community service... we're helping to build the future workforce."
Although it's easy to see how individual businesses such as The Segal Co. already have benefited from school-to-work programs, it's too early in the game to gauge what kind of impact the school-to-work movement has had on the success of businesses in general. But the individual successes suggest that school-to-work partnerships may offer realistic solutions because they tackle one of the main reasons so many young people leave school ill-prepared to take jobs or continue on to specialized training: School seems irrelevant, unimportant and boring for most kids who aren't college-bound or in need of special education.
Teachers can be businesses' best advocate.
Just as students need to see the relevancy of school to their future in the working world, so do their teachers. Most teachers, unfortunately, don't know that much about the world of work outside their walls, says Paul Hasney, vice president of corporate education for Hibernia Bank in New Orleans who also is a former high school teacher.
To educate teachers about other work environments, Hibernia joined a consortium of financial institutions in 1995 that was being formed to act as an advisory group to help set up financial services academies at five New Orleans public high schools. Then, Hibernia, which employs 4,000 people statewide in Louisiana, set up weeklong workplace-orientation sessions during the summers of 1995 and 1996 for 40 high school teachers. The teachers were paid to attend seminars in the morning and engage in job-shadowing or other work-related activity in the afternoon. Hasney says the sessions were successful in giving teachers insight as to how what they teach in the classroom is relevant to the workplace, but that there was too much lag time between the summer sessions and the start of the school year in September. This year, a different approach will be tried. Once a month, teams of academy teachers will leave school for a day of work at the bank, a brokerage firm, an insurance company, or one of the other business partners in the consortium.
At the corporate headquarters in the Chicago suburb of Hoffman Estates, Claire's Stores, a women's accessories retailer, has set up mentoring and job-shadowing for teachers from grade level to junior college, explains Tina Perkins, the retailer's human resources manager. It's a way of getting the message out about the different kinds of jobs available in the retail industry, says Perkins, who's also on the school-to-work advisory board of the NAB.
Teacher-orientation sessions also end up promoting new-found respect among educators and employers. Getting educators and business people to respect one another and work together is key. As someone who has attended many advisory board and other meetings between educators and business people, businesswoman Badway observes that "educators don't feel they're highly regarded by business people and business people don't feel they're highly regarded by educators. There are enormous misperceptions, but when teachers and business people work together and start progressing on something, it's like handing out candy in the middle of the meeting."
For employers, at least, the real prize will come when, somewhere down the road, a new crop of graduates reports to work with the skills and attitudes necessary to make them successful, productive employees. That will be the time to hand out the candy.
Workforce, May 1997, Vol. 76, No. 5, pp. 28-37.