Retooling Education – Learning That Works for New-Collar Jobs in the Future

As advanced manufacturing jobs return home in the post-pandemic economy, new factories need to be built, robots programmed, new infrastructure developed, and the talent pipeline replenished with skilled career-ready workers.

Over the years, the dividing line between blue and white-collar workers has grown frayed and it is about time to move to a new-collar worker philosophy where essential skills matter more than outdated degrees.

Contrary to what many parents believe, students who get job specific skills in high school and choose vocational careers often go on to get additional educational credentials and good paying jobs. With an associate degree or a postsecondary nondegree award, such as a certificate or an apprenticeship, these graduates with real world experience and validated credentials can earn $55,000 or more.

Educational Skills Gap

Students are encouraged to go to college to get ahead but only a small percentage of high school graduates are even prepared to enter the workforce or college. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) measures what U.S. students know and can do in various subjects across the nation. The latest report shows less than 40 percent of students tested in the 4th, 8th, and 12th grade are proficient or above average in math, reading, and science.

When looking at the 2019 ACT test results, taken by more than 1.78 million graduates – 52% of the United states high school graduating class - only 37% met at least three of the four ACT College Readiness Benchmarks. Thirty six percent met none of the benchmarks.

In 2017, the US spent $12,800 per student on public education, which is the second-highest amount spent per student of any country in the world. Pew Research from 2017 found the US ranked 38th in math and 24th in science when compared against 71 other countries. At the postsecondary level, the United States spent $31,600 per FTE student, which was 95 percent higher than the average of OECD countries ($16,200).

We are learning that 41% of recent bachelor’s degree recipients and 34% of bachelor’s degree holders are underpaid and underemployed, meaning that they are working in jobs that typically do not require a bachelor’s degree. Despite all that spending, the US has struggled to graduate career and college-ready citizens. An estimated 60 percent of students are leaving high school with a less than proficient mastery of the basic skills and knowledge needed to be employable and career- ready for today’s jobs.

Learning That Works

The United States is discovering that the demise of vocational education and educational basics at the high school level has bred a skills shortage of career and college-ready graduates. While some of the new-collar jobs require a college education, most are "middle skill" jobs requiring a high school diploma, a foundation of math and science along with some additional training acquired through apprenticeship and/or credentialing programs.

For decades, the theory has been that top students get into the best universities and land white-collar jobs while the rest are forced to endure, at best, a high school or community college vocational program where they will secure blue-collar roles. IBM, Google, and Apple recently announced they would no longer require a degree and would consider applicants with less than a college degree with the needed skills.

Employers and educational leaders are reevaluating the need for Career Technical Education (CTE) as an educational strategy that equips learners with the academic and technical skills they need to be prepared for future careers. Today’s CTE delivers real options for college and rewarding careers, helps learners build real-world skills and enhances the high school and college experience. CTE is having a positive effect on graduation rates where 95% of CTE students graduate high school 10% higher than the national average. Seventy eight percent of CTE graduates enroll in post-secondary education full-time.

Charter Schools are another successful educational model, boasting some of the highest graduation rates across the country. Charter schools educate about 5 percent of K-12 students in the country and the sector is growing and receives a great deal of financial and public attention from school reformers. They differ from public schools by focusing on particular subject areas like science and technology, or art and music. Using a distinct set of teaching methods, students are prepared for a specific college major, or the school's rules and activities are wrapped around a theme such as military discipline. The expeditionary learning charter school model emphasizes student teamwork and enables students to master concepts while completing comprehensive, hands-on projects.

Public charter schools have a proven track record of adapting their educational programs and services to the needs of their customers. The 2017 US News and World Report rankings of the country's best public high schools found 60 percent of the top 100 high schools are public schools of choice – either charter or magnet. In a study of charter schools in the Washington, DC area, it was discovered that 8 out of 10 charter school students graduate from high school on time, compared to 59% from public schools.

Charter schools do this while meeting the same curriculum, oversight, and financial standards as traditional public high schools. It is especially critical for our educational system to successfully meet the needs and demands of the rapidly changing 21st century and our students.

Retooling Education for the Future

The U.S. educational system must be retooled to graduate career and college-ready citizens with the employable skills and knowledge to obtain their first job and/or continue on with post-secondary education or credentialing for success in work and life. The Institute for the Future estimates up to 85 percent of “new-collar” jobs don't yet exist so having transferable skills will be more important than a degree.

A strong skilled workforce is key to reshoring and manufacturing growth. Reshoring Initiative® President, Harry Moser, explained that a national mind shift was needed from promoting education and degrees as the only means for achieving success to promoting both education and training as a pathway to high-paying new-collar careers of the future.

To achieve this goal, educators and business leaders must form public-private partnerships and join with organizations like the Association for Manufacturing Excellence (AME), the Reshoring Initiative and others to engage in reinventing the educational experience. The goal is to graduate all students with the critical thinking skills to adapt to the evolving challenges of new-collar careers and the ever-changing demands for the future of work.

Glenn Marshall, Newport News Shipbuilding Career Pathways (retired), is on the Association for Manufacturing Excellence (AME) Management Team initiative for leading a “Manufacturing Renaissance” and a member of the Reshoring Initiative and Job Creators Network. For more information contact

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