Preparing Today's Students for Tomorrow's Workforce

by Dr. John Throop
The Summit Group

When thinking about jobs and careers, high school students face a challenging future. Employers also face challenges in their search for qualified employees with reading and math skills, as well as a working knowledge of international economics and world trade. The three sources for these challenges are the need for flexibility in the complex knowledge economy, an increasingly well-educated global workforce and greater demands for innovative development and the use of technologies.

Unfortunately, our education system struggles to provide such academic preparation. There is a greater disparity between academic achievers and those who struggle to learn. More broken households than ever cause greater instability for adolescents, with more demands on a student’s time than ever before. As part of the No Child Left Behind standards in place, teachers and school administrators wrestle with state aid tied to results in standardized testing.

And more and more schools are being placed on the state academic watch list. East Peoria Consolidated High School District 309 is just one of dozens of schools across the country that face challenges meeting educational standards in reading and math. One mother, whose daughter is a struggling student there, confesses her frustration: “My daughter is intelligent, but she keeps falling further behind and seems so lost,” the mother says. This story can be told again and again throughout central Illinois—and in the United States as a whole.

Area high schools are taking action, however, to educate students about global issues. Last year, District 150 welcomed five instructors from Beijing who will teach the Mandarin Chinese language and culture to its students over the next two years, while the Dunlap School District recently announced that it would begin offering classes in the Arabic language to its students. Richwoods High School offers the acclaimed International Baccalaureate program, a two-year, pre-university course of studies based on international standards—and one of the most rigorous in the nation. Tim Turner, cultural geography teacher at Limestone Community High School, says, “I have been lucky at Limestone, because most of my economics students take my cultural geography class. They are probably better prepared to do international business than many college graduates.”

High school students also have excellent learning and training opportunities with global companies in their communities, especially with Caterpillar, Inc. With 300 plants in 40 countries and sales offices in nearly every country around the world, CAT is eager to develop talent in every possible place, but especially in central Illinois. The company is committed to helping schools develop technical savvy and global knowledge among students, offering college-level training and development in a variety of fields—most notably the STEM fields—Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics—together with internships and educational programs for prospective employees.

CAT is also committed to high-school level and even middle-school level programs. For example, the company’s Destination Technology program is designed to help high school students prepare for science-related careers. Instructor-related courses are also provided to high school teachers with weekly readers that provide them with tools for use in the classroom. And middle school students are offered two-week summer training camp programs as an introduction to the fields of engineering and technology.

Christopher Glynn, president of Caterpillar University, CAT’s continuous learning program for its employees, believes that it is never too early to begin preparing students for critical fields such as engineering, manufacturing and technology. “Exciting students about careers and helping them to deal with basic economics, math and reading skills are very important to a company like ours,” he said. Glynn also emphasizes that students need to learn at an early age how to deal with resources and their careful stewardship, a key concept in the company’s approach to sustainable development.

Schools are dependent on financial support for education. Elected officials are certainly aware of the competitive challenge for funds, and that schools have to be a number-one priority in state budgets. State Representative Keith Sommer (R-106th) is committed to the development of students as future skilled employees. “Students—and the schools they attend—have wonderful opportunities for learning in every area of business life,” he observes. “And I’ve found the teacher response to these opportunities to be very encouraging. They offer such positive opportunities to students.”

Sommer described one of many examples of a student experience at the high-school level. He regularly sponsors a trip to Chicago to visit with staff at the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to learn from employers and foreign consulates about global economic opportunity in Illinois. “One student became very interested in these opportunities and went on to pursue an engineering degree at the University of Illinois,” Sommer says. “As he finishes his bachelor’s degree, he will pursue a master’s—and when he finishes, he will be snapped up immediately by a central Illinois employer.” Sommer says that this young man’s story can be repeated in central Illinois schools. (For more, see Rep. Sommer’s column on page 18.)

Yet many students face challenges in learning and understanding, as well as in personal discipline. Perhaps the concept of high school may need to undergo some basic changes, says Rolf Silversen, principal of Midland High School in Varna. “Create a three-year high school experience,” he suggests. “In 2001, the National Commission on Senior Year suggested that students be allowed to leave high school after their junior year to attend college or vocational schools. The 29-member panel described senior year as a ‘lost year,’ since most students complete the majority of their graduation requirements upon completion of their junior year.”

Silversen agrees with the panel that senior year can be a transitional year for education and training for the workforce. “Secondary schools can recognize college credit for seniors at universities or community colleges during their last year in high school. Making high school a three-year experience would lower college expenses for families, create more opportunities and allow students to enter the job market sooner.”

In any case, for high school students to enter the global economy, significant changes have to occur in academic programs and personal discipline. “We look at things pretty practically,” says Christopher Glynn. “We may not have enough people in the pipeline to meet demand at a basic level in future years…so it’s a tricky question, looking 10-15 years down the road.” Students, parents, teachers, employers, community leaders and leadership development organizations all have important roles to play in the development of central Illinois’ young people into global workers— and all have a major task ahead. IBI

Dr. John Throop is a Peoria-based management consultant with international experience and president of The Summit Consulting Group, Inc. He writes regularly for InterBusiness Issues.

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