The U.S. presidential campaign has focused a great deal on the need to expand economic opportunity, but candidates in both parties have not said enough about how they would achieve it. While helping more students go to college has been a topic of discussion and is a vitally important goal, what about those who do not go — or who drop out of high school? They are largely being ignored, as they have been for decades, by an education system that is stuck in the past. That must change.
We will not solve the critical challenges of poverty, underemployment, wage stagnation and bulging prisons unless we get serious about investing in effective programs that prepare kids who are not immediately college-bound for middle-class jobs. Other countries — such as Germany and Switzerland — have figured this out. We must, too.
About 70 percent of young Americans, and 83 percent of blacks and Hispanics, do not earn a bachelor’s degree by age 29. Most who attend community college don’t graduate. And without having gained career-focused skills in high schools, many are getting left behind.
It used to be that a high-school diploma was enough to qualify for a job at the local factory that paid wages high enough to buy a home and raise a family. Those days are long gone. There are still more than 12 million manufacturing jobs in the U.S., down from a high of nearly 20 million in 1979. But most require far more skill than they once did. A high-school diploma no longer cuts it.
The same is true for many of the fastest-growing sectors of the economy, including health care, computer science and the construction trades. Many jobs in those fields don’t require a college degree, but they do require technical skills that high-school programs typically don’t offer. Because we have failed to strengthen and expand career and technical education, few students are given the option to pursue programs that would give them the skills that are an entry ticket into these industries.
As a result, too many students are put on traditional academic tracks that lead to dead ends, often graduating unprepared to perform anything but minimum-wage service jobs that hold few prospects for advancement. Many cannot find work at all, increasing their risk of being involved in crime and violence. We must do better.
In Washington, there is bipartisan agreement on the need to better prepare high-school students for careers, but very little has been accomplished. At the local level, school districts often lack the resources to adopt curricula geared toward the jobs of today and tomorrow. But some cities are tackling the issue head-on, and New Orleans — where nearly one in five young people in the region are neither working nor in school — is taking an innovative approach to this challenge.
Recently, a group of Louisiana education, business and civic leaders came together to create YouthForce NOLA, with the aim of providing high-school students with training and experiences that will prepare them for jobs that offer good wages.
Over the next five years, YouthForce NOLA aims to help 1,600 students earn credentials qualifying them for jobs such as EMT, junior software developer and manufacturing process technician. Each of those jobs is a first step to long-term professional advancement.
The program also aims to place more than 1,200 students in paid internships that are aligned with students’ coursework and provide experience in the workplace. That kind of experience is invaluable, because it can open students’ eyes to worlds of possibilities that they never knew existed. There is no substitute for inspiration.
Each member of the partnership, including civic leaders like the mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, has a crucial role to play. Education leaders, led by Louisiana’s superintendent of education, John White, will reshape curricula. And business leaders will open pathways for students with the right training and skills. For too long, business leaders have been missing from the table in discussions about vocational programs, and it shows. Unless they are involved, new programs will fail — and the disconnect between career-focused education and the job market will grow even wider.
To help close the gap, JPMorgan Chase and Bloomberg are providing $7.5 million to YouthForce NOLA, and we hope other business leaders will join us in pushing for change in their home communities. We are preparing similar investments in Denver and Detroit, where civic, education and business leaders are also committed to educating and training young people for high-demand jobs.
As with so many other issues, national leaders and the presidential candidates should look at the approaches being taken by cities to modernize career education. Long-term, broad-based economic growth depends on a strong and expanding middle class that is open to all Americans, not just college graduates. That is only possible if we reinvent vocational programs so that they are aligned with macroeconomic trends, growing local industries and jobs that offer opportunities for advancement.
Without that, we will never give young people — regardless of their race or ZIP code — a chance at a better life, nor will we stop the senseless violence that claims so many young lives and imprisons even more, nor fulfill our promise as a nation devoted to the idea that equal opportunity is a birthright.