Skills Needed For High Growth, High Wage Jobs

By Betsy Brand

What are the skills needed for high value, high wage, high growth jobs? A great report by the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, Job Growth and Education Requirements Through 2020 addresses this. I remember seeing the first iteration of the report when it came out a couple of years ago, but decided to look at it again to see how we are faring in our efforts to make sure our students have the education and skills needed to meet labor market demand. The section on “21st Century Competencies: Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities” needed for jobs in 2020 piqued my interest. One chart lists the skills most highly valued in high-wage, high-growth, high-demand jobs as: active listening, speaking, reading comprehension, critical thinking, writing, monitoring, coordination, social perceptiveness, judgement and decision making, complex problem-solving, active learning, time management, mathematics, negotiation, and science.

It struck me that the top five skills listed are all communicative by nature. I also noticed that many of the other skills – coordination, social perceptiveness, judgement and decision making, complex problem-solving, active learning, and negotiation – aren’t necessarily learned through the traditional academic curriculum of math, science, English language arts, and social studies that schools offer. Ensuring that all our students acquire these skills is no easy task, and I see three big challenges facing our schools in this effort.

First, communication skills, broadly writ, are the keys to the realm of high wage, high value jobs. Unfortunately, we don’t always do a great job teaching communication skills (reading, writing, speaking) to our students. Thelatest NAEP scores for 2015 show that students had an average score in reading of 223 points in grade 4 and 265 points in grade 8 on the 0-500 point scale. Students made no growth in reading since the last report in 2013. When we look at racial breakdowns of scores, Black, Hispanic, and Native American students all perform significantly worse than average. And that’s only in reading. We are not testing speaking, listening, or writing, areas critical to communication.

In addition, we have a growing population of English Language Learners (ELLs). According to the U.S. Department of Education, 4.85 million ELLs were in public schools in the 2012-2013 school year, about 10 percent of the total K-12 student population. Some states and school districts have very high numbers of ELLs. California has the most with an ELL enrollment of 24 percent, followed by New Mexico with 18 percent, Nevada with 17 percent, Texas with 15 percent, and Colorado with 13 percent. Many ELLs have persistent and wide achievement gaps compared to native English speakers and often face greater barriers to postsecondary education and career success. Are all these students getting the communication skills they need for high wage, high value jobs?

Second, one can also argue that some of the skills that are valued by employers, such as coordination, social perceptiveness, judgement and decision making, and complex problem solving, are generally not taught in traditional classrooms, but are developed in informal, non-school settings over time. Given the focus on tests and accountability, many schools don’t have time to focus on fostering the development of skills that take time and experience to cultivate. The development of these types of skills often occurs in informal and experiential learning settings that include project-based learning, school-based enterprises, internships, apprenticeships,work-based learning, and service learning. These learning experiences can take place either during school or afterschool and let students work with each other and with adults to solve challenging problems. Unfortunately, very few of our students have access to work-based learning, internships, apprenticeships, and the kind of experiences that allow the development of these skills over time as part of their schooling. Moreover, the students that do have access to work-based learning tend to be from more affluent backgrounds and better educated, meaning that the students that have lower skill levels to begin with don’t have opportunities to develop these skills. We need to think about using the non-school hours more effectively to help all students develop these skills over time.

Third, instruction in most of our schools does not address many of the highly valued skills needed for good jobs, such as negotiation. To learn many of these skills, it helps to introduce them to students within a practical framework and relevant context. Learning many of these skills in the context of longer-term, interdisciplinary projects or as part of a career pathway or career and technical education program can give students time to test, try out, revise, and improve all sorts of skills and behaviors that take time to develop. It’s important for students to start developing these skills at young ages and to have lots and lots of practice. Most schools aren’t designed to allow that to happen, although there are promising models as part of the Deeper Learning Initiative that promote learning and skill development in this way.

It’s time to have a serious discussion about the appropriate role of our K-12 system, afterschool system, community youth providers, workforce system, and employers in ensuring that our young people have all the skills necessary to allow them to succeed in high value jobs.

Betsy Brand is Executive Director at the American Youth Policy Forum.