BPW Foundation's Women Misbehavin' Blog

Well behaved women never make history

Youth Unprepared for the Workforce

Posted by egehl on September 8, 2010

Recently a friend of mine who is a teacher at a charter school in New Orleans asked if I could help her grade one of her class assignments.  She is a biology teacher for sophomore, junior and senior students.  As the world now knows Hurricane Katrina revealed the poverty and deficiencies in New Orleans including the city’s deplorable public school system.  Since the storm, the education system has slowly but surely gotten revamped so that our city’s children, especially the poorest, have a chance in life.  While there’s still a long way to go in improving our schools, New Orleans is considered the city to watch when it comes to education reform. 

I went to my friend’s classroom to get a firsthand look at where she teaches and receive a tutorial on the assignment I would be grading.  While I was there she showed me prior assignments her 15-17 year old students had completed right when school started.  As I was looking through a stack of quizzes, I couldn’t help but notice her students writing and format of answering questions.  In fact, I was appalled.  Answers were incomplete or written very poorly for a teenager, and my friend said that was typical. 

It prompted me to think about young people’s–including those in Generation Y and afterward–readiness for the workplace and my suspicions were confirmed that many are not prepared for its challenges and rigors.

According to research conducted by Corporate Voices for Working Families, employers find that the majority of young people are unprepared to succeed at work in the 21st century.  To back up this employer data, an additional survey was distributed by Public Policy Polling to measure what the general public thinks about work readiness for young people.  It found that employers and the general public agree that young people lack both the basic and applied skills necessary to succeed in the workplace.

This is very troubling not only for the welfare of our young people but also the future of this country, and our ability to compete in a global economic market.  And it all starts with education and biology classes like the one my friend is teaching.

Specifically the general public survey reports that “fifty-six percent of those surveyed feel that more than a quarter of young people do not have the skills they need to be prepared to work, and 21 percent feel that more than half of the nation’s young people do not possess the skill sets to be work-ready.”

The welfare of our younger generations, those about to enter the workforce and the ones already working in it, must be a priority for policymakers, businesses and communities. 

New Orleans is viewed as the nation’s “Petri dish” of educational experimentation and how a failing school system can be turned around.  The city still has a long way to go but some positive developments have come out of the creation of more charter schools and recruiting dynamic, young teachers to teach in our worst schools.  However it’s yet to be determined how successful these reforms and ideas will be, and whether this city’s children will receive the education they need to create a better life than what was available to them before the storm.

When I asked my friend how many of her students will enter into a 4 year college she said 10% out of 100.  A few others will attain an associate’s or technical degree.  This has to change because as indicated in the survey and what we all know already, the readiness level of young workers is worse for those with only a high school degree compared to those with postsecondary credentials.

Interestingly enough the main skill that the general public indicated young people lack when entering the workforce is professionalism.   The next areas missing included critical thinking, problem solving, basic skills like writing and reading, communication capabilities and creativity.  Other concerns employers have about young people is regarding their sense of entitlement and unrealistic expectations about the workplace.  There is a sense that this generation wants to shape their jobs to fit their lives rather than adapt their lives to the workplace.

So who bears the responsibility of our future workforce? 

The general public and employers feel that educational institutions (both K-12 and higher education) play a key role.  It will take significant support not only from our education system, but also families, communities and nonprofits that support youth.  K-12 schools and colleges have the primary responsibility for providing the necessary basic knowledge and applied skills such as writing, reading and math.  However employers also have a responsibility to help young people develop their professionalism, critical thinking and problem solving skills.  

I have a lot of respect for teachers.  They have so much responsibility on their hands and are doing what they can to get our young people better prepared for a competitive and demanding market.  But as evidenced by the skill set I saw in my friend’s classroom, I am worried that our kids are falling father and father behind.  As a nation we must prioritize education otherwise the ripple effects in our society in the future will be paralyzing to our economy and overall well-being.


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