Media Highlights

In Arizona, Career Channeling Aims to Stem ‘Disconnect’

by USA Today   •  

Denis Wagner, Reporter

As a journalist at Businessweek magazine, William “Bill” Symonds covered U.S. industry for years. Then he gave up his reporting career to study education at Harvard, and decided something wasn’t adding up in America’s school system.

Put simply, the nation devotes money and academic focus on programs designed to produce college graduates even though a huge proportion of the employment opportunities are for workers with trade skills, not degrees.

Symonds began investigating what he calls a “disconnect between education and business” in 2008, interviewing corporate executives and studying matriculation results. What he found was even more perplexing: Disenfranchised high school kids drop out at the rate of 1 million per year; most students who attend college quit without getting diplomas; teen unemployment is skyrocketing; and many who graduate from universities wind up burdened by debt and educated for the jobs they land.

Political science graduates working as barristas. Bio-chemists selling cars. History majors looking for work. All across the nation, Symonds says, people in their 20s are lost — struggling to find careers that offer dignity, income, future. An estimated 5.8 million Americans age 16 to 24 are not going to school or working.

Meanwhile, many of tomorrow’s employment opportunities are in professions such as auto repair, plumbing, elderly care and hospitality services that don’t require university diplomas.

“We’re not preparing young people to lead successful lives,” Symonds says. “How can we change the system to give more kids the chance at the American dream? That’s really what this is all about.

“We’re not saying going to a four-year college is a bad idea. We’re saying it’s a plan that doesn’t work for all students. It doesn’t even work for most students. … I just think we’ve oversold the idea that the four-year degree is the only way forward.”

Symonds’ research led to a seminal report in 2011, “Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century,” which pretty much flips prevailing U.S. education theory on its head.

Symonds advocates a systemic reform based on northern European models, with three major components:

— Students should receive sophisticated career counseling early — even in elementary school — so they can choose an education track that meets individual needs, aptitudes and aspirations.

— High schools should offer multiple tracks that allow students to choose between college-prep studies and up to 100 vocational options.

— Schools should collaborate with businesses to give students hands-on opportunities to explore careers and learn marketable skills.

In Symonds’ school system, freshmen would be exposed to a gamut of career choices during the first semester, then choose a specialized study track. Those on trade pathways would learn professional skills, do job-shadowing and be ready for apprenticeships by senior year.

The idea, Symonds says, is to build successful adults by offering kids choices. Each young person would have a specific career goal, and motivation to learn.

The college prep track would be one among many. Students not interested or equipped would avoid wasting time and money, at the same time building self-esteem. And U.S. businesses would benefit from a pre-trained labor market.

Symonds says career channeling has proved successful in northern Europe, as well as Massachusetts and some other states, with high school graduation rates of 95 percent. “It’s not a new model. It’s been studied,” he notes. “It’s really phenomenal what this can achieve. And it’s working especially well in low-income areas.”

For several years, Symonds has spread his gospel from Harvard. This autumn, he embarks on a mission in Scottsdale, Ariz., with the opening of Global Pathways Institute at Arizona State University’s SkySong campus.

Symonds says Arizona is an ideal laboratory because the state ranks 46th nationally on an “opportunity index” (as measured by, with nearly 18 percent of the youth identified as “disconnected.”

While many school districts already offer counseling and shop classes, he says, most are bare-bone programs that cannot meet the needs of students or industry, and are not complemented with instruction in workplace values such as promptness, diligence, teamwork and communications.

While youth unemployment has skyrocketed in recent decades, Symonds says opportunities are being ignored. “I think the fundamental issue in this century is the fact that the middle class is under so much pressure,” he adds. “We really have to expand the awareness that these jobs are out there. … What we need is to offer students more options.”

Symonds bristles at a suggestion that vocational education may be denigrated as a “lower track.” He says many professions that require no college degree pay upward of $50,000 and open a door to entrepreneurialism.

Symonds says Global Pathways Institute is backed not just by ASU, but by the Arizona Governor’s Office, the state Department of Education and a variety of business and industry groups. He declined to discuss its first-year budget.

He concedes that his vision represents a radical change in America’s education culture, spending and curriculum. Part of his mission will be to sell parents, teachers, school administrators and students on a new culture, a new value system.

But he also points out that Germany, Switzerland and some other nations already have adopted multipath schools, and they are leaving the United States behind.

Read more at USA Today.

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