Posted by StreetWise in Magazine ArticlesAs keynote speaker for the Evanston150 “Learn to Work and Work to Learn: Creating Career Pathways for Evanston’s Opportunity Youth” conference October 25, William Symonds of the Harvard Graduate School of Education preached a broad message about all youth – not just impoverished ones – who could become the “wasted generation.”
The term “opportunity youth” comes from a White House conference chaired by Michelle Obama two years ago. It refers to youth age 16-24 who are out of school and out of work; the term replaces earlier monikers such as “at-risk youth” and “disconnected youth.”
But as he addressed Evanston educators and its business community, Symonds said the crisis has reached every family in the U.S., not just youth who drop out of high school or college. He spoke also of families who spend $200,000 for four years at Northwestern University and find their child is unprepared and unfocused.
In general, Symonds said the four-year graduation rate in the U.S. is 55 percent after six years, while the number of those who complete two-year colleges after three years is 29 percent. This nation has more college dropouts than anywhere else in the world because the education system does not fit today’s students and the jobs available to them.
“We’ve got a situation now that affects every family in America,” Symonds said. “The effects are staggering. Our education system is not preparing students for college or a career, though that is the goal of the Common Core Standards. The employment situation is really depressing. We have the lowest rate of young adult labor participation in American history. Job opportunities for young adults have literally collapsed and the amount of money they can earn has also lowered dramatically. Of course, we have a lot of social problems that everyone in this room is aware of: declining family structure, a lot of poverty. Many of our students are living in poverty and that’s especially the case here in Illinois and even in other states. The upshot of this is that if we don’t tackle this problem, we are going to end up with what I call the ‘wasted generation.’ ”
Symonds also discussed the “one road to heaven fallacy:” that students should undertake a college prep curriculum in high school, then go to a four-year college to earn a bachelor’s degree. Just 1 in 3 jobs created in the last decade require a four-year degree or more, he said. Roughly another 1 in 3 require just a two-year associate’s degree or certificate.Community colleges have been considered a second-class education, he said, where students go if they cannot get into a four-year university. Yet in the next five years, only 1 in 3 of the seven million jobs in Illinois will require a four-year degree.
Symonds also cited a new phenomenon called “reverse transfer” where graduates of four-year colleges recognize they did not get the skills they need and return to community colleges or technical schools. The payoff can be jobs in information technology. There are 500,000 unfilled IT jobs at Microsoft, most of which pay at least a middle-class salary of $35,000, he said. And according to the Wall Street Journal, roughly half of IT personnel lack a four-year degree.
Who are these people? Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, who dropped out of college because it was a financial burden to his family, he said.
“We need to rethink the whole idea of the dignity of work,” he said later. “We have jobs that need to be done: 35 million jobs pay $35,000 a year and require less than a four-year degree and are necessary to our economy. We’ve demeaned those jobs and we have to turn that around if we are going to prepare our young people for success.”
Symonds has advocated an apprentice system similar to the European model, where students decide early to begin working part-time alongside adult mentors. However, he and others like Elliot Ransom, a blogger for Mission Measurement in Chicago, concede that the apprentice system can become an educational caste, incompatible with American culture.
Evanston150 Learn To Work & Work To Learn” Task Force Chair Barry Lundberg said earlier that he hoped the October 25 event would result in an American model for youth education and employment. Evanston participants referred often during the day to the “elephant in the room:” the need to avoid sidetracking low-income kids, including a homeless youth population of 400 to 500.
Indeed, by the end of a day filled with speakers, a panel and breakout sessions, the Evanstonians were talking about career education that would begin for ALL students as early as fourth grade. They also wanted individual education/career plans for all students – rich or poor – by ninth grade. Participants suggested another big meeting focused on career education with the city’s youth advocates and the business community. Lundberg promised a complete report in the next few months and an action plan based on conference feedback.Jeff Mays spoke to the conference after Symonds. As president of the Illinois Business Roundtable and former executive vice president of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, Mays was instrumental in starting an Illinois Pathways Initiative in line with Symond’s concept of more than one road to career success.
Gov. Pat Quinn launched this public-private partnership between Illinois public education institutions and the business community on Feb. 9, 2012. The Pathways to Prosperity Network also includes Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, North Carolina and Tennessee. All of them are committed to “ensuring that many more young people complete high school, attain a postsecondary credential with currency in the labor market, and launch into a career while leaving open the prospect of further education,” according to the website of Jobs for the Future (JFF), a Pathways to Prosperity partner.
Illinois Pathways is funded with $3.2 million of $42.8 million in federal Race to the Top (RTTT) funds initially developed through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Six state agencies are also involved, from the Ilinois Board of Higher Education to the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. The program will work with K-12 schools, business and higher education to offer hands-on training and early college opportunities in nine career clusters:
Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources
Architecture and Construction
Transportation, Distribution and Logistics
Research and Development
Mays said the Illinois Pathways program is a “coalition of the willing,” consisting of local employers, educators, chambers of commerce and workforce boards, labor unions and professional associations, all leveraging their assets. The Pathways resource center aligns public/private resources into nine areas. These include an e-learning curriculum; newer factory equipment for community college curricula; support for student organizations – 4H is one example — that provide career information from kindergarten onward; internships that provide work-based learning opportunities; externships that allow high school teachers, for example, to spend summers working at companies like Abbott or Argonne National Labs.
“What a tremendous opportunity for those teachers to get the juice back,” Mays said. Personal education plans for students that transition them to post-secondary work are yet another facet of Illinois Pathways.
Symonds and Mays also participated on the panel, “What Works – Translating this to Evanston,” moderated by Shelley Gates, director of the Evanston Township High School “Career Pathways” department. Others on the panel included Karin Norington-Reaves, CEO of the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership; Kevin Brown, Youth and Young Adult Program manager for the City of Evanston; Sacella Smith, executive director of the Evanston Youth Job Center and Dan Swinney, CEO of Austin Polytechnic Academy in Chicago.Students need hard skills, more connections to employers and an awareness of their options, Smith said. One collaboration with a major drug store chain has resulted in in-school training to receive a state credential as pharmacy technician and starting pay of $13 an hour. She likes to use the term “stackable credential:” the kids can build on the certificate later with an associate’s degree or higher degree at a better salary.
Brown referred also to “trauma in the community, issues around poverty, everything from health care to lack of opportunities to get into the right kinds of classes they need to become literate.” He said he sees this situation all the time as head of the city’s summer youth program that employed 345 people in 2013.
Brown told StreetWise later that he dislikes the term “opportunity youth” because it still silos kids. He sees the problem as related to changes in the American economy: fewer high-paid manufacturing jobs, “a lot more poverty, more people on food stamps.”
Kids are dropping out because they feel education is irrelevant to their lives, Brown said. Some of them are low-income and want to make money now, but some are like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs: would-be entrepreneurs. However, the same opportunities have not been open to them. “How can government and private industry together create the environment for greater opportunity?” he said.
Drug use can knock a kid out of a job even as a Walmart greeter, right after the application, Symonds said. He also advocated education in “financial literacy,” as he cited a “skyrocketing increase in young women having babies out of wedlock. It’s a national epidemic and unfortunately for the most part these women are signing up for a life of poverty.”
There is a tendency to operate in a bubble, Smith said. Counselors need to have these discussions with kids, plan with them before they drop out.
Later, Symonds talked about the need to reach out to local corporations such as McDonald’s for jobs or Dunkin Donuts to bring in franchisees who can discuss entrepreneurship. ETHS’s Gates said students used to disdain McDonald’s jobs but now they want the work. Other panel participants said the economy has changed enough that students are now competing for these jobs with 40- and 50-year-olds.
Relationships are key, Mays said. Schools will have to send their best students, the disciplined ones who can show up on time. Smaller businesses with fewer than 50 employees do not have the extra capacity to cover for no-shows.
“I’m not willing to trash thousands of people because they happened to be undisciplined,” Brown responded. “We’re talking 14-, 15-, 16-year-old children. We’ve got to develop those who want to be helped and repair those who are broken.” It is unsustainable to keep locking up youth, he said. Those who committed crimes before age 18 should receive certificates of rehab so that they can access jobs and housing.
Norington-Reaves, a former 1st grade teacher, had said earlier that many kids lack soft skills, or what used to be termed “home skills:” shaking hands, looking someone in the eye or not grabbing another child’s playground toy. These are things they should have started learning at birth, yet there are a generation or more of kids whose parents have not participated in the workforce to the degree where they would have imparted these skills.
“For me, good work is exposure,” Norington-Reaves said. “You can’t be what you do not see. If you have no exposure to IT, to engineering, you can’t be those things. It’s absolutely unrealistic to expect you to metamorphisize into this magnificent skilled worker.” Businesses must be willing to become educators.
“They’re kids,” she said. “Their brains are marinated in hormones. They will make some stupid decisions, some great ones. It’s OK, it’s still development.”
The average teen needs 15-20 points of contact before they understand what you are talking about, Swinney said. Freshmen and sophomores at Austin Polytechnic spend a lot of time visiting companies while juniors and seniors do job shadowing, internships, even talking to chief engineers and CEOs.
Austin Polytechnic’s latest program is aimed at young men 20-30 who are returning from prison, Swinney said. Before release, they worked on math skills; they have since gone to community college and now 11 of them are working in manufacturing for $14 an hour.
Joe Flanagan is CEO of Aquirent, an Evanston-based company that helps small and large businesses recruit sales teams. He addressed the conference after it returned from breakout sessions on improving career exploration and pathways for students, engaging employers, identifying stakeholders and determining the collective impact for Evanston.
“Ask small employers, ‘what are your needs.’ This town was built on small employers. There are so many people investing in the solution. How we work together to collaborate as a group will make a more vibrant Evanston.”
John Kolesa contributing on Symonds keynote
By Suzanne Hanney