In a 2008 study, I argued that meeting the needs of North Carolina's economy required our public schools to prepare more students for career and technical occupations. Next year, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction will begin an effort to do just that. It is a long overdue, common-sense step toward strengthening the quality of our state's work force.
Employers in the high-tech, manufacturing, and health care professions have been vocal about the failure of the nation's public schools to provide high school graduates with the foundational skills and knowledge needed to be successful in these high-demand fields. Researchers agree. The authors of a recent Harvard University report found that there is "growing evidence of a 'skills gap' in which many young adults lack the skills and work ethic needed for many jobs that pay a middle-class wage." They named this group "The Forgotten Half."
For years, North Carolina's elected officials, particularly Gov. Mike Easley, maintained that "The Forgotten Half" simply should join their college-bound classmates and set their sights on earning a college degree. During Easley's two terms as governor, his political allies in the state legislature created laws, policies, and programs that shoved career and technical education to the periphery. Even the National Education Association joined the effort by publishing Easley's children's book, Look Out, College, Here I Come!
Fast-forward to the present. Gov. Bev Perdue does not share Easley's "every child must go to college" educational philosophy. Pro-business Republicans control the General Assembly. Most importantly, DPI will begin administering the WorkKeys assessment to students who pursue career and technical training in our public schools.
Testing company ACT describes WorkKeys as "a job skills assessment system that helps employers select, hire, train, develop, and retain a high-performance work force." Career and technical education students who take the WorkKeys test receive scores in three areas: applied mathematics, locating information, and reading for information. Based on their WorkKeys scores, students can determine if they have the requisite skills needed for a given job or profession.
For example, ACT recommends that students interested in a career in accountancy score a six or above in applied math, a five or above in locating information, and a five or above in reading for information. Students who want to become accountants after high school, but do not attain the minimum scores in one or more of the three areas, can recognize their weaknesses and improve upon them in their remaining years in high school.
In addition, students who meet WorkKeys standards can earn a National Career Readiness Certificate. The certificate shows that the individual has met basic requirements for entry into a profession. The NCRC is the first step in the process of accumulating increasingly advanced credentials, such as industry-specific certifications or a degree from a post-secondary school. For example, the Manufacturing Institute recently partnered with Forsyth Technical Community College to integrate the NCRC into manufacturing certification credit programs offered at the community college.
Eventually, WorkKeys and the NCRC may allow a significant number of high school graduates to forgo post-secondary degree programs altogether. Instead, those who struggled in formal classroom settings may choose to pursue a series of industry certifications or credentials specific to their occupations. In this way, they acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to become successful in their chosen careers without borrowing thousands of dollars and committing years to a degree program that they are unlikely to complete.
As long as elected officials and state education leaders stay on course, the idea of a "Forgotten Half" will become, well, forgotten.
Dr. Terry Stoops is director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation.