Ensuring student success, economic competitiveness

Many people who are worried about our economy are apt to believe that there simply aren’t enough job opportunities available. But the real challenge is finding enough people with the right skills and knowledge to do the jobs that our economy does have.

The shorthand for this conundrum is known as the skills gap, and it’s the primary reason why so many young adults who resolve to find a new job might be disappointed with their options. It’s also dismaying for major employers who will have to invest a great deal in training and retraining the workers they hire.

According to a new report from the business leaders group America’s Edge, “Ensuring Washington State’s Global Success,” industries that require workers to be high-skilled (with at least a bachelor’s degree), or middle-skilled (with more than a high school degree but less than a four-year degree) will soon have even more jobs that they cannot fill. In fact, in the next 10 years there will be twice as many new jobs requiring post-secondary education as those requiring a high school education or less.

Meanwhile, jobs in the fast-growing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields — the foundation of our modern economy — are expected to grow 22 percent. Of these jobs, 93 percent will require post-secondary education.

So how do we produce the qualified workers to fill these jobs?

One solution is to make sure that our K-12 education system is appropriately challenging our kids. Washington state, along with 44 other states and the District of Columbia, has embraced higher standards for English language arts and mathematics, based on international benchmarks. We must stay the course with these rigorous standards and hold our students — and future employees — to a higher measure.

Another part of the solution is to increase the options available to young people. School can seem separated from “real life,” so it can be hard for some students to see how their academic studies will be relevant to them as adults. Promising approaches blending academic with career-relevant courses can help bridge that gap. Students in these kinds of innovative schools are not only learning the skills they’ll need in the future, but how and why those skills are important in the real world.

Our state legislators are currently focused on establishing a standardized set of career and technical course equivalents through a process that assures the courses are both rigorous and relevant for students. We commend their efforts as an important step forward in guaranteeing that students around the state have multiple pathways to career and college readiness.

The “opportunity gap” and “skills gap” are both real, but the right combination of high academic standards and innovative high school models can reverse this trend. Educational achievement and our economic competitiveness will both be stronger if these models become accessible to more students throughout our state.