As the U.S. economy has inched toward recovery these past few years, employment has stubbornly remained at a standstill, with job prospects particularly bleak for recent graduates. But we have a powerful secret weapon in our quest to turn this trend around: teachers. Because in fact, job openings do exist, but many require an advanced degree or specialized credentials -- meaning that there's a fundamental mismatch between the skills that job seekers have and the skills that employers want. Our teachers are key to preparing for the inevitable job/skills disparity that arises in an ever-changing economy. Simply put, teachers create and fill jobs.
Workforce development organizations do great work locally to bridge the gulf between the unemployed and employers with vacancies. For example, the Full Employment Council, a nonprofit organization based in Kansas City, Missouri, has identified four careers that are in high demand locally: construction, advanced manufacturing, health care and biotechnical. The workforce development organization helps unemployed workers acquire skills in these areas and then places them with employers that have vacancies. This organization is locally focused, aware of the workforce needs that employers have, and capable of delivering the necessary training.
But workforce training is a reactive approach to filling the skills mismatch.
In order to be proactive, we must look to our teachers.
Secondary school is the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood. High school teachers and counselors have the last words of advice for students before they enter post-secondary education or the workforce. By teaching students to understand the economy, careers, and human capital, educators prepare young people to enter the workforce with their heads on swivels, ready to spot opportunities and acquire the skills they need.
So how do we ensure that young people graduate high school with a basic understanding of how the economy works?
One way is to require them to take a course in high school. According to the 2011 Survey of the States from the Council for Economic Education, only 14 states require high school students to take a Personal Finance course as a high school graduation requirement and 22 states require high school students to take a high school Economics course. I cannot think of anything more critical to teach young people before we unleash them on society.
Personal finance includes the study of how people earn, use and manage money. It provides young people with an understanding of basic economic principles that form the essential foundation for one's ability to manage money and prepare for the future. Personal Finance and Economics teach young people to take advantage of school and education to develop the human capital essential to setting and reaching goals in life. The more students understand and consider the skills, knowledge, experience and personal characteristics that contribute to success in our dynamic global economy, the greater the likelihood they will appreciate how continual investment in their human capital will help them achieve their goals.
Because these course requirements are new developments in many states, it is too early to know their impact in a measurable way. However, anecdotal evidence seems promising. Over the summer I talked with a high school student who planned to study health sciences in college because his Personal Finance teacher identified that as a high growth sector. This student also told me, however, that he was going to keep his options open just in case better opportunities presented themselves elsewhere. This is the kind of clear-eyed young person that understands the interplay between the economy and the workforce. The skills that employers want are constantly evolving. Young job seekers need to be ready to adapt, which is what good teachers prepare them to do.
In the public debate about unemployment, politicians typically focus their promises on job creation. But recent graduates and the unemployed job seekers can't afford to wait for jobs to be created. In this ever-changing employment landscape, teachers are the key to closing the gap between the skills that they have and the skills that they need.