09/30/2011 06:01 pm ET | Updated Nov 30, 2011

Time for Innovation in Job Creation

We hear a lot these days about innovation and job creation. But when people talk about innovation and jobs, they're usually talking about innovations that may produce jobs -- as opposed to innovations in the way we increase employment.

Why not innovation in job creation?

Sure, cutting-edge technologies will open up new jobs and help fuel an economic recovery. But innovation isn't only about technology; it can be any that's-brilliant-why-didn't-I-think-of-that approach. It can be the iPad, or it can be a school.

It could be a Fundacion Paraguaya self-sufficient school, a model which prepares students for meaningful employment -- and pays for itself. The model school, San Francisco Agricultural School shows how the program can succeed. It teaches organic agriculture and entrepreneurial skills to poor rural youth in addition to traditional high school subjects.

Half the school day is spent putting these practical skills to work in small enterprises that are located right on campus and meet the market needs of the surrounding community. These student-operated small businesses generate enough income to cover all of the school's operating costs, while also preparing the students for success after graduation.

This solution has been heralded for its ingenuity and scalability by the industrious folks at eBay Foundation and Ashoka Changemakers, who know a thing or two about successful innovation. Self-sufficient schools based on the model are up, running, and succeeding in agricultural communities in South America. They will soon be replicated in urban settings around the world, including the slums of Rio de Janeiro, Nairobi, and Mumbai. They could work in the United States, too.

"Each school -- be it urban or rural -- bases the training it provides, and the type of on-campus businesses it sets up, on the business and employment opportunities available in its particular market," said Mary Liz Kehler, Fundacion Paraguaya's Washington, D.C. director.

"In one business plan that we helped draw up for an organization in Rio, the school businesses included a catering business (food prepared in a low-income part of town for delivery to another, affluent part of town), sports clothes, and computer repair/recycling. The school businesses for that school are different from those, say, at our model San Francisco Agricultural School in Paraguay.

"However, students would be learning the same key skills that are relevant for finding a job or starting a small business anywhere. These include financial and computer literacy, good record keeping, quality control, good customer service, marketing, and responsiveness to market demand."

A market-based approach to preparing young people for finding and creating jobs -- and it simultaneously takes pressure off financially-strapped schools. That's a great why-didn't-we-think-of-that idea, and Kehler says the United States could and should implement it.

"Wouldn't it be interesting if schools could generate at least some of their own income -- especially if they could do so in a way that added to the quality and relevance of the education they offer?" she asks.

That education would significantly upgrade the traditional job training provided by vocational schools now, where both teachers and students tend to be isolated from the realities of a rapidly shifting market.

"Teachers at schools implementing the financially self-sufficient school model are in charge of both teaching their subject and running, with student help, the school businesses related to their subject areas," Kehler said. "Hence, they know very well which are the critical skills that students must master in order for a business to flourish."

This kind of imaginative thinking should be what propels new solutions to the challenging employment conditions of a highly dynamic U.S. and global economy. Old ideas are simply not working.

A recent House subcommittee hearing, hopefully entitled "Made in America: Innovation in Job Creation and Economic Growth," was, depressingly, mostly a debate about the pros and cons of government spending and taxes on businesses. That's just not innovation in job creation.

The Fundacion Paraguaya model is. And it could be effective in the United States. It is enormously flexible and can be adapted to many different situations. It would prepare the American workforce of tomorrow for an employment landscape that is flexible, changing, and full of both challenges and opportunities.

"Young people need portable skills that are in demand and will remain in demand in many different types of jobs -- skills such as computer and financial literacy and the ability to understand and meet customers' needs, as well as a good work ethic and personal values," Kehler explained.

"They also need an understanding of how markets work so that they can recognize market opportunities and adapt as the markets continue to evolve."

Why didn't we think of that?