Tough Economic Times

No one will disagree that we are in the midst of uncertain economic times — and no one really knows where it is going or when it will end. Businesses are laying off employees, consumers are cutting back, and many college students are one gas tank away from having to drop out of school. To exacerbate the problem, we are living in a knowledge age where our economic security is dependent on an educated workforce. The National Governor’s Association says “the driving force behind the 21st century economy is knowledge, and developing human capital is the best way to ensure prosperity.” The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that there will be a 22 percent increase in the number of jobs requiring postsecondary education by 2020, and we can expect a deficit of 12 million skilled workers unless access to higher education is improved. Yet colleges across the country are reporting that student enrollment is declining due in part to increasing tuition costs and the inability to secure student loans.

So what can K-12 schools do to help ensure an educated workforce? One answer may be the expansion of dual enrollment programs. Imagine leaving high school with a LPN in nursing or a year’s worth of college courses under your belt. Financially, dual enrollment is a great deal for students and parents. Another path is vocational education. In recent years, vocational education programs and career academies have been popping up everywhere. Only this time vocational education means a lot more than taking a class in home economics or wood shop — it means legal labs, criminal justice labs, electronic labs, cyber zones, travel and tourism, and much more. It means real-world learning opportunities, specialized expertise, and well-educated students ready to enter the local workforce.

Career academies have been in existence for more than 30 years. The first, an “Electrical Academy,” was founded in 1969 at Philadelphia’s Edison High School and sponsored in collaboration with the Philadelphia Electric Company. In 1981, a “Computer Academy” at Menlo-Atherton High School, and an “Electronics Academy” at Sequoia High School brought the model to California’s Silicon Valley. In 1982, New York City started the first “Academies of Finance” at John Dewey High School in Brooklyn, a project that was sponsored by the American Express Company. Since 1990, the number of career academies has soared. Today, approximately 24 percent of our nation’s high schools have a career academy. Early career academies were part of a school-within-a-school organizational structure. Their main focus was on student retention and vocational preparedness for at-risk students. Now many exist as stand-alone high schools and offer a variety of career options as well as simultaneous career and college preparation.

None of these programs is a “golden bullet,” nor do they replace a good college education, but given the current economic conditions — it’s one for the plus column. Without programs like this our hope for filling the deficit in skilled workers is nil. Without developing our human capital, our economy will continue to lag behind. This may be a time of unprecedented challenges; let’s hope it is also a time of unparalleled opportunity. As the Greek philosopher Plato said, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” I sure hope he was right!