12/05/2013 08:58 am ET Updated Feb 04, 2014

Connecting Students to the Workforce in Washington, D.C.

This post was co-authored with education expert Ximena Hartsock

Across the country, the Great Recession has hit recent graduates hard, as they often find themselves with expensive degrees that match up poorly with the needs of a depressed labor market.

This "school to work" transition is especially challenging in the Washington, D.C. area, especially for low-income and minority youth. In fact, over 11 percent of DC youth are categorized as "disconnected," meaning they are not in school or at work. This is a familiar situation in Latin America, where these youth are known as the "NiNi" (ni trabajo, ni educacion).

The rates are among D.C. minorities are truly alarming. A full 19 percent of African-Americans and 11.7 percent of Latinos are disconnected, compared to seven percent of white students. This translates into 32 percent of low-income youth without degrees that are not working and not in school, compared to 22 percent nationwide.

What makes these numbers even more unacceptable is that Washington currently enjoys a booming economy. We host numerous foreign embassies and international organizations such as the IMF, the World Bank, and the Inter-American Development Bank, which require thousands of high-skilled workers. The city is also, of course, the epicenter of U.S. politics, attracting ambitious talent from across the nation.

At the same time, the private sector is showing vigorous life. The northern Virginia suburbs have long been defined by technology and IT related jobs, especially those related to the defense industry. D.C. itself has seen the flourishing of initiatives to foster innovation and entrepreneurship. As Douglas Wolford, president and Chief Operating Officer for Convergent Wealth Advisors -- a private fund with some $11 billion under management -- told the Washington Post, "Over the past 10 years or a little bit more, the growth of entrepreneurship in Washington has exploded."

This bustle of technological innovation, politics and international policymaking is great for our city, creating well-paying, high-skill jobs. At the same time, it only highlights the missed opportunity it is that we are not preparing our youth properly -- especially as many of the jobs on offer here are highly competitive and open to applicants from around the world.

When we look at the skills that workers need to be successful in today's economy, it is impossible to avoid the connection between high-skill jobs and quality education. Even though national benchmarks show that D.C. has made significant progress since the 1990s, our public schools still occupy the bottom of the list nationally. Washington also maintains the widest achievement gap and the lowest graduation rate in the country -- here, only 59 percent of youth graduate from high school compared to 63 percent nationwide, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Business leaders on the hiring end have argued that there is a profound disconnect between what schools are teaching and what is actually required for a worker to succeed in a globalized, innovation-driven, and knowledge-based modern economy. As Brookings puts it, "[A] growing chorus of political, business, educational, and philanthropic leaders is encouraging the development of additional educational pathways... incorporating work-based learning into the educational system is more the exception than the rule."

A natural question then arises: what has happened to technical education? Other countries that have excelled in fostering innovation and high value-added sectors of the international economy -- think northern European countries such as Finland, Germany, Switzerland, and Norway -- have excelled largely through such education.

In these countries, between 40 and 70 percent of students opt for a vocational post-secondary education. Finland, which has long been near the top international assessments like the OECD's PISA evaluations, stands out for its incorporation of project based activities in the school day. Though Finnish policy-makers might not label that strictly "vocational", it does foster a climate where kids acquire technical skills that can be put to use.

Part of the problem in D.C., and nationwide, is the stigma that comes from not pursuing a traditional, college-oriented high school diploma. Our obsession with four-year colleges is certainly one of the reasons why disconnected youth see dropping out as their only other option.

In fact, alternative education options are not just a way to achieve a diploma, but also a possible path to a career. A new study by Korean author Kyung-Nyun Kim of the Korea Research Institute for Vocational Education and Training offers hope for preventing dropouts. Kim argues that youth who drop out are not looking for a college education but are open to other ways to acquire missing skills, if they could be exposed to alternatives.

With so many factors at work, it is clear that addressing the skills gap in Washington will require a multifaceted approach. Schools must find ways to become more engaged with the productive economy that surrounds them, and improve their ability to instill and evaluate the type of skills that the private sector is looking for. Changing the perception of technical education as a "second-rate" option will also be key. According to Jeb Ory, founder and CEO of the D.C. tech company Phone2Action, "We are all looking for PHP developers and web designers -- none of which require a four year degree, but the DC pool for these areas is just not big enough."

This type of creative thinking -- like ways to match the needs of business leaders in the tech sector with programs that provide youth with real life opportunities -- is what we will need much more of, and soon. And with 70 percent of DC high school youth now saying they are open to more job training opportunities, it's time for our policy leaders to catch up.

Ximena Hartsock is a former school principal and previously served as the Deputy Chief of Teaching and Learning for the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). She is currently President of Phone2Action, which she co-founded.