Lesson Plan

By Cindy Waxer

Jul. 2, 2004

Nicholas Donohue, New Hampshire’s commissioner of education, has handed out plenty of bad report cards in his 25-year career. But this time, it’s not a pimply-faced teen with an attitude problem that’s about to receive a failing grade. This time, Donohue is giving America’s education system poor marks. By failing to provide today’s high school graduates with the skills they need to succeed in the 21st-century workforce, the system has placed the United States “on the verge of becoming a second-class society economically,” he says.

    “If we’re serious about maintaining our prominence in the world economically, then we have to have much higher expectations for our young people,” he says. “And that means investing in strategies for increasing educational results.”

    Today’s corporations are looking for job candidates with strong analytical and effective communication skills, qualifications that surpass the fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic. No longer can a high school graduate expect to land a position on a factory assembly line. Computer automation is slowly eliminating traditionally middle-class jobs, thus raising the bar for America’s workforce. Today, employers are in search of workers who can communicate clearly, use data to solve problems, work well with people of different backgrounds and use computers to carry out simple tasks like word processing. By failing to accommodate these new hiring demands, schools across the country are denying businesses the employees they need to properly compete in the global marketplace, says Kenneth Kay, president of The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a public/private grouping of community and business leaders.

    Desperate for solutions, many companies are getting actively involved. Boston-based law firm Hale and Dorr has its lawyers participate in local after-school programs; IBM offers tutoring and mentoring sessions; and computer manufacturer Dell hosts courses in which students learn how to assemble a computer. It’s either lend a hand now or pay the price later for underskilled workers, as many companies find themselves having to foot the bill for compensatory training or outsource work to foreign labor forces.

“We have a serious problem in America,” says Barbara Dyer, president of the Hitachi Foundation, a nonprofit philanthropic organization. “Young people are graduating from high school without the skills really necessary to be employed in many of the positions that are available.”

    That is why businesses, school boards and busy parents are turning to after-school programs to help bridge the gap between an antiquated curriculum and the modern-day demands of the marketplace. The more than 4,000 hours a year children spend outside school presents fresh opportunities to develop essential skills for the new economy. Far from being glorified babysitting sessions, these programs can teach young participants real-world skills such as creativity, character development, problem solving and the ability to work on diverse teams.

    Congress has caught on to the educational benefits that can emerge outside regular school hours. Federal funding for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program has jumped from $40 million in 1998 to nearly $1 billion in 2004. In the meantime, businesses are ramping up their contributions to after-school initiatives. At a time when the government’s No Child Left Behind legislation is narrowing the scope of education to focus on reading, writing and arithmetic, Kay says, big business is broadening the definition of “teacher” to include professionals willing to serve as community mentors.

Employers today require higher-order skills

The increase in the college/high school wage gap stems in part from changes in the occupational distribution. This chart shows the percentage of employed adults in various occupations in 1969 and 1999, indicating a declining need for less-skilled workers.  

Source: Richard Murnane and Frank Levy, The New Division of Labor (2004)

    To recognize just how after-school programs are preparing today’s students and tomorrow’s workforce is to understand how economic, educational and employment needs have evolved over the past few decades. Cash-strapped school districts and overcrowded classrooms are only part of the reason why countless young people are entering adulthood without the skills they need to work successfully. Richard Murnane, a Harvard professor of education and society, and Frank Levy, an M.I.T. professor of urban economics, offer an in-depth explanation in their new book, The New Division of Labor: How Computers Are Creating the Next Job Market. Murnane and Levy argue that computers are now carrying out tasks that were once performed by blue-collar workers. Long gone are the days when a hardworking high school graduate was practically guaranteed a day shift in a neighborhood factory. Computer technology such as automation software has displaced these workers, forcing them to find work outside the occupations they’ve historically inhabited. Murnane and Levy’s research shows that since 1969, there has been a nearly 10 percent decline in the need for routine manual labor and a 15 percent increase in the demand for complex communication skills.

    “Computers are increasingly doing the jobs that high school graduates used to do, which are the blue-collar assembly-line and clerical jobs,” Murnane says. “Consequently, it’s really changed the kinds of skills humans need to make a decent living.”

    But high school grads need not wind up working at dead-end service-sector jobs that rarely pay enough to support their families. Murnane and Levy say there is a way to prevent schools from churning out students without the qualifications necessary to obtain or move beyond a blue-collar job. The solution lies in teaching today’s youth 21st-century skills such as expert thinking and complex communication. Expert thinking entails being able to identify and solve new problems rather than simply perform routine tasks. Complex communication involves not only eliciting and absorbing information, but also conveying a particular interpretation of information to others. For example, a customer might complain of receiving inadequate service from your company. Rather than simply process this information, a worker with the appropriate 21st-century skills can interpret and weigh a customer’s needs in accordance with global events, economic circumstances, cultural differences and technological factors.

Computers are increasingly doing
the jobs that high school graduates used to do, which are the blue-collar assembly-line and clerical jobs. Consequently, it’s really changed
the kinds of skills humans need to make a decent living.

    Murnane and Levy aren’t alone in thinking that young adults need new skills to meet the changing needs of the workplace. Seventy percent of Americans believe that teens need to acquire skills beyond reading, writing and math to succeed in the workforce. And a study conducted by the AOL Time Warner Foundation found that 92 percent of the 1,000 adult American respondents think young people need different skills today than they did 10 years ago.

    The Partnership for 21st Century Skills is doing its part by actively promoting the adoption of new skill sets. The organization has defined a framework for the types of skills students require to succeed. Based on feedback from educators, researchers and employers across the country, this short list of qualifications includes effective communication, collaboration, problem-solving and analytical thinking.

    But it is knowing how to learn, not what to learn, that is the key to ongoing success in the modern-day workplace. Kay says technology is constantly changing the way that workers perform tasks and approach projects. As a result, today’s businesses want employees who are willing to become lifelong learners by continually updating their skills and knowledge. “The ability to adapt to change is just the reality of the 21st-century workforce,” Kay says.

    As schools across America continue to focus on the fundamentals of learning, after-school programs are fast becoming forums for students to develop and practice these new skills. High-quality programs offer small-group activities that can help young people develop important teamwork and leadership skills. Students interact with community mentors and learn about different fields of interest. And after-school sessions help students hone their math and literary skills by giving them the opportunity to apply their knowledge in hands-on activities.

    Eddie Locklear, national director of 4H After-School, a division of the National 4H Council, says that after-school programs serve as “a laboratory to allow young people to put into practice the skills they’re learning in school,” such as teamwork, leadership development and conflict resolution. The organization’s learn-by-doing curriculum ranges from teaching teens the basics of balancing a checkbook to discovering the science behind outdoor gardening.  

21st century skills  
This chart shows the changing attitudes towards the skills that Americans believe are needed to succeed in the 21st century. An increasing number of business leaders, teachers and parents believe reading, writing and math skills must be supplemented with strong communication and analytical skills for students to succeed in the modern-day workforce.  

Source: Partnership for 21 Century Skills
*Totals might not equal 100% because of rounding

    If  businesses are hungry for better-qualified employment candidates, Eric Schwarz says, they had better start contributing their time and energy to after-school learning programs. Schwarz is president of Citizen Schools. For nearly nine years, the Boston-based organization has been advocating a learning model that addresses community needs while building student skills through hands-on after-school learning activities. The organization operates 10 after-school programs for more than 1,000 middle-school students in Boston and 11 additional affiliate programs across the country. Citizens Schools’ programs range from field trips to local institutions, neighborhoods and universities to focused homework assistance to strengthen a student’s academic performance.

    But it’s the organization’s hands-on apprenticeships, taught by community business leaders, that promise to have the greatest impact on future generations of the workforce. Schwarz says that business owners have spent far too many years playing “Monday morning quarterbacks and spectators in education reform.” Now is the time, he says, for them to step in where many parents simply don’t have the time, money or energy to participate in their children’s lives. “The after-school program can really play a parenting role by introducing kids to music, art and sports,” Schwarz says.

    Lawyers at the Boston-based law firm Hale and Dorr have been lending both their pocketbooks and expert services to Citizen Schools since its inception. In addition to providing the organization with a $75,000 annual grant, twice a year Hale and Dorr ushers eager middle-school students from the inner city into its plush offices to help them prepare for mock trials. During these trials, students deliver opening statements, cross-examine witnesses and argue their cases before real federal and superior court judges.

    John J. Regan, a senior partner at Hale and Dorr, says that the program serves the community and helps the firm in the future. “Big business that is smart [gets involved in after-school programs] because it constitutes an investment in their future workforce,” Regan says. “Today’s children are going to be your candidates for employment in 10 years or less.”

    IBM is banking on its after-school agenda. In addition to partnering with Citizen Schools, the computer hardware giant is a supporter of TutoringPlus, an organization in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that fosters the academic and personal growth of youth through one-on-one tutoring and mentoring programs staffed by volunteers. “We want to make sure that down the road, we are able to have an educated community from which to draw our employees and our customers,” says Cathleen Finn, an IBM community relations program manager.

    Dell’s recruiting efforts are off to an early start with Dell TechKnow, the computer giant’s own after-school learning program. Teens from inner-city school districts are selected to participate in a 40-hour course during which they disassemble and rebuild personal computers donated by Dell. Graduates of the program take home the computer they build and receive a year of free Internet access as well. More than 2,000 students have completed the course, 80 percent of them ethnic minorities.

    For every student enrolled in an after-school program, there is an office-bound mother or father breathing a sigh of relief. In fact, studies have shown that workday productivity starts to slow down around 3 p.m., just as kids begin pouring out of school doors and onto city streets.

    Donna Klein isn’t the least bit surprised by the strong correlation between after-school programs and workplace productivity. Klein is CEO of Corporate Voices for Working Families, a two-year-old nonprofit, nonpartisan coalition of 47 companies that addresses policy makers and Congress on work/life issues. She says that dual-income families and long workdays are factors that have contributed to parents’ increased concern about their children’s after-school whereabouts. “If employees are worried about the safety of their children after school and concerned about whether or not they got home safely, that’s a tremendous draw-down on productivity,” Klein says.

    If providing peace of mind to parents isn’t enough to convince companies to help out, a strong business case can be made for after-school care as well. The National PTA reports that at least 7 million, and perhaps as many as 15 million, American children have nowhere to go after school. Because of this, they are at risk of both committing and becoming victims of crime. However, studies show that the nation’s taxpayers save approximately $3 for every dollar spent on after-school programs by reducing high-school dropout rates and cutting remedial-education costs.

    In the meantime, many companies continue to contend with the problem of poorly prepared job candidates. Kay says the fact that companies are being forced to invest in high-priced training courses and outsource jobs has served as a much-needed “clarion call.” Business leaders, teachers, parents and students are finally waking up to reality and recognizing the need for immediate action.

    “The most effective thing we can do,” Kay says, “is to make sure our students possess the skill sets that are going to make them as competitive as possible.”

Workforce Management, July 2004, pp. 37-40Subscribe Now!

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