Skilled Labor and Schools

Skills and Schools: A Crucial Connection

SkillsUSA Alabama– a two-day expo, competition and conference that allows businesses in industries such as construction and technology to expose schoolchildren to technical careers – starts today in Birmingham.

If you’re wondering why I would take the time to write about this, let me explain.

Recent reports, such as a recently completed Harvard University study, show that too many of our kids and youth are not prepared to enter the workforce as well-trained workers, and certainly not enterprising entrepreneurs who create jobs.



For a number of reasons, it says, an alarming number of kids drop out of high school (more than a million a year). As many as 40 percent of graduating youths don’t get the college degrees or certified training they need to enter an increasingly competitive workforce. As a result, some under-educated and under-trained young adults face a world of economic hurt that will put them at risk for drugs, violence, prison, teenage pregnancy and other social ills that can damage them for a lifetime.

This crazy recession has been terrible for teen employment, especially among low-income African Americans and Latinos. Know how many 16- to 19-year-olds in those groups are working? According to figures in the Harvard report, just 9 percent of Black teens and 15 percent of Latino teens. What the — !? No wonder these kids are getting into trouble!

As Blacks and Latinos begin to comprise an ever-larger percentage of the American population, well, you see we have serious problems. In essence, there may not be enough folks in the pipeline to replace the aging population of skilled workers who’re retiring, especially millions of skilled laborers such as pipe fitters, machinists and welders. This situation will continue to drag down our country’s ranking among the world’s developed nations in terms of productivity and competitiveness.

Stuff like this fills business owners with dread. Type the words “skilled labor shortage crisis” into your search engine, and see for yourself.

It seems our core problem is this country’s educational system is singularly focused on academics and getting kids college ready, hence the over-emphasis on test scores and college entrance exams. But college isn’t for everyone. Our education system stigmatizes intelligent, but non-academic student types. It fits them like a pair of mile-high-stiletto pumps, two sizes too small.

For too many young folk, particularly those in the inner city and poor rural areas, even finishing high school is optional.

I’m no education expert, and I am certainly not qualified to point fingers at anyone. But I found myself thinking something is seriously wrong with our education system after a meeting last week.

I’m on the Youth Council of the Jefferson County Workforce Development Authority. We were grading organizations that were applying for funding to serve the out-of-school, under-employed 18 to 21 populations. I kept thinking, shouldn’t these services they offered – remedial academics, job readiness, technical skills training, life assessments, and the like – be done while students are in high school? Maybe, if the kids had something like this earlier in their classes or career counseling sessions, they might have stayed in school, or been ready to work when they graduated.

Mind you, I don’t think our kids are dumb. According to the Harvard report and other surveys, some are simply bored. Their skill sets aren’t being developed in typical school settings. They don’t see a real-world correlation between their academic studies and a job or skill that will help them make them money when they’re older. A living example of this problem told me as much.

A reformed street hustler who went to prison (he has an informal outreach ministry to disaffected youth) said most of the people in his community had completed high school or went to college, but had no jobs. ‘So what was the point of school when I can sell drugs?’ he figured. I bet that if someone had told him he could make as much as $65,000 a year as a welder (as then two-year college president Bradley Byrne told a business audience a few years ago), he might have buckled down a little more and taken that training class instead of making choices that led to prison.

People who see no practical use for school, or who feel resentful over negative school experiences where they didn’t seem to measure up to college-prep standards, often don’t value education. Unfortunately, they pass these attitudes on to their children. So the entire community suffers.

This is where organizations like SkillsUSA Alabama can offer some help. Organizers want you to bring your 8- to 12-grade students to get hands-on job experiences during the business expo at the BJCC East Ballroom, between 8 a.m. and noon tomorrow (April 28).

SkillsUSA’s annual competition brings students from across the state together to compete in more than 60 different categories including carpentry, electrical technology, video production and cosmetology. The idea is to help youth see a clear connection between their schooling and their future careers.

Maybe organizations like this can turn some disaffected youth on to school before they tune out and drop out. They can help us build pipelines of ready workers for industries that need them.

That’s why Alabama’s construction industry essentially taxed itself to raise money for a marketing campaign to encourage more students to consider jobs in construction as viable career paths. The result is the Alabama Construction Recruitment Industry and its Go Build Alabama campaign, conceived by Big Communications. ACRI is sponsoring the awards ceremony for top competitors at SkillsUSA tomorrow.

We need more innovative thinking in education and more innovative partnerships with other industry sectors to help our kids stay in school and be ready to work when they graduate, for the prosperity of us all.

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