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COMMENTARY: Answering the need for a new educational paradigm for all students

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For far too long, employers have complained that the education system is not producing the skilled, career-ready graduates needed to meet the challenges of today’s workforce economy. Currently, the Manufacturing Institute reports having nearly 900,000 open jobs in manufacturing—a record for the industry.

Education has been trapped in an academic paradigm that everyone needs to go to college and get a degree. Unfortunately, this has made mainstream K-12 and higher education increasingly irrelevant to blue-collar opportunities, trade jobs and the growing area of new-collar work. The old paradigm emphasizes intellectual knowledge; the new paradigm emphasizes expertise and skills.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has crunched the numbers, estimating the economy has created millions of job openings over the last decade, and less than a third require college degrees. Among recent high school graduates ages 16 to 24, college enrollment rates for men and women were 59.3% and 66.2%, respectively.

After paying for four more years of education, however, graduates aren’t finding jobs to match. While the estimates vary from 40% and up, a whopping percentage of new college graduates are underemployed, getting jobs they might have found straight out of high school, if given the right resources.

So, what do K-12 students and prospective graduates need? Employers are looking to fill open positions based on the skill sets of candidates. A growing number of companies offer well-paying jobs to those with nontraditional education experience and just a high school diploma, including tech giants like Apple and Google. If offered ample resources—like community college classes, software boot camps, certification opportunities, apprenticeships and internships—today’s high schoolers have the world at their fingertips.

School choice can address how the educational system needs to be reinvented. By breaking the connection between ZIP code and assigned school, choice offers families access to a bigger world of resources and opportunities. These opportunities include the vocational skills, certification programs, on-the-job learning experiences and specialized learning that can close the skills gap. A framework of choice also resets our mentality about learning—school choice options like microschooling and homeschooling, for example, challenge the notion that learning must take place primarily at a desk.

By giving families more personal agency in education decisions, school choice engages parents and students in the broader conversation about American education, and how it might need to change and grow. What’s more, by encouraging diverse technical and skill-based opportunities for students, school choice invites employers who are directly affected by the outcomes of public education to collaborate with K-12 schools, too.

Skilled and credentialed professions are paying off, and our high schoolers should know that. Twenty-seven percent of people with post-secondary licenses or certificates earn more than the average bachelor’s degree recipient. When asked about the strengths of U.S. manufacturing careers, a survey of manufacturing professionals confirmed that manufacturing provides stability and solid middle to upper middle-class salaries.

During National School Choice Week (Jan. 23-29), the Association for Manufacturing Excellence will be highlighting school choice—public schools, private schools, microschools, online learning, career technical collaboratives and more—because choice can answer our urgent need for a paradigm shift in education. We hope you will join the conversation, too. It’s time for communities to take an active role in preparing students to make their American dream a reality by graduating them with career and college-ready skills of their choosing for success in work and life.

Glenn Marshall, Newport News Shipbuilding Career Pathways (retired), is on the Association for Manufacturing Excellence Management Team initiative for leading a “Manufacturing Renaissance.”

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