Helping Our Students Means Breaking Down Workforce Barriers 

Article main image
May 8, 2020

When it comes to preparing today’s students for tomorrow’s careers, everyone knows and talks about the skills gap. What fewer people talk about is one of the most important ways to close it – making the workforce more accessible to high school students.

The two go hand in hand. Education is working hard to explain what skills potential employers are asking for. Education is even implementing essential skill concepts into course curriculum. However, the primary way anyone actually attains those skills is not just through gaining knowledge in the classroom, but by performing tasks and demonstrating competencies on the job. Until our youth have an opportunity to do this, they are unable to really learn these valuable skills.

Understandably, many of today’s business leaders are hesitant to offer youth employment. They’re worried about the time commitment. They’re worried about the cost of offering opportunities for work-based learning. They’re worried about not having enough staff to manage internship, externship, apprenticeship or job shadow programs. And they’re worried about the workers’ compensation insurance, too.

The good news is that there are ways to break down these barriers and ease employers’ concerns. All it takes is some cross-sector collaboration.

That partnership starts in the classroom. There, industry professionals can work with educators to design career technical education (CTE) classes that initially help students understand what opportunities exist in that field. These exploratory classes inform students about what positions are most in-demand, what they pay, and whether an interested student will need to pursue a two-year degree, four-year degree, or supplemental training to meet entry-level requirements.

From there, students can choose to learn about another industry, or, if they’re interested, make progress down a pathway of related classes – likewise designed with industry in mind, if not taught by former members from industry. These classes provide students with the necessary “book smarts” they need and also equip them with the most sought-after skills.

The natural next step is to have students enter into the workplace and put those skills to the test, but this is the part that employers have historically had an issue with.

One way to overcome these issues is to have a third party become the employer-of-record (EOR) to assume some of the responsibility that would typically fall on HR’s plate. Some of those responsibilities include onboarding the student, paying them, paying their payroll taxes – the company can be billed at a later date – providing ongoing support, and, of course, providing workers compensation insurance, thereby relieving the company from assuming all of the risk.

Third parties are also capable of providing companies with relevant, critical insights. They are knowledgeable about child labor laws, can evaluate the training and supervision models, and can even walk organizations through the implementation steps. Then, after an initial pilot phase, third parties can help the business scale the program and rely on the local school system partnership to provide talent every year.

Work-based learning is an obvious win for students. It puts students in a position to save money on college costs – the average Ohio college student owes almost $29,000. It allows them to establish a professional connection they can follow up on when they’re ready for full-time employment. It gives them the ability to add relevant work experience/distinctions to their resumes sooner than their peers – in the state of Ohio, for example, students who participate in a program like this can earn class credit, as well as a state-designated readiness seal on their high school diploma – and their experience on the job makes it easier to gain employability skills while they transition into a career mindset.

Businesses benefit as well. They can have confidence knowing that skilled workers are coming their way – 56% of senior executives say the skills gap is real at their organization. And, when educators foster such a supportive program, becoming coaches to help students transition to handling the responsibilities of a job, employers can rest assured that high school apprentices won’t switch gears after only a few days on the job.

Our next generation of talent is sitting right here in our schools. The talent pipeline is right here. So, we need to ensure that our workforce – not just college — is accessible to students, and that we build up a future talent pipeline that can be accessed by employers. It’s a big undertaking, but it’s an undertaking that’s absolutely possible when our public and private sectors work together.