The disconnect between education and career readiness and how to fix it

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s a question most of us were asked in our youth, and over the years the answer probably changed as we became more aware of our interests, talents and options. But today, many American adults still don’t have an answer for that question and that fact highlights the disconnect we see between our education system and career readiness.

A 2017 survey by Gallup and the Strada Education Network reveals that more than half of Americans (51 percent) regret one of their college education choices and that more than one-third (36 percent) would change their major, if they could. This sentiment might be explained by the fact that nearly one-third (31 percent) of college graduates don’t work in the same field as their college major, according to CareerBuilder.

Part of the challenge of connecting education to future career success might be when and how we talk about career readiness with our young people. From an employer and industry-backed standpoint, these efforts tend to fall into two categories: STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and career tech in high school, and industry-specific outreach in postsecondary.

What if employers and industry started to make connections earlier, such as middle school or even elementary school? Students, as early as eighth grade, are being asked to make real-life education and career decisions. However, most students have never seen or heard of the many different education and career opportunities that are available to them, even the ones in our own state.

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Introducing a wide array of education and career possibilities to students at a younger age may be one way to address the issue. Organizations such as Junior Achievement are helping to bring more employers, industry and educational opportunities to youth as early as kindergarten.

Over the last two years Rhode Island has made significant investments and advancements to introducing young people to different education and career opportunities. However, more needs to be done. To that end, Junior Achievement has developed a new signature program for eighth-graders called JA Inspire.

Most students have never seen or heard of the … education and career opportunities that are available.

JA Inspire is a coalition of educators, employers and industry leaders, led by Junior Achievement. At the center of our work is a powerful Career Exploration Fair designed as an interactive, hands-on, career-exploration experience for eighth-grade students. The program features a showcase of careers at local businesses, nonprofits, government agencies and educational organizations from all over Rhode Island. Exhibits include interactive career stations with mentors who share their career advice and engage students with equipment and technology, giving them the opportunity to “step into the shoes” of employees from all industries. In December, JA Inspire will bring more than 4,500 eighth-graders, and more than 80 exhibitors to the Rhode Island Convention Center. Over the next two years, JA will be working to increase the program to nearly all 12,000 eighth-graders in Rhode Island, so they can make the right choices for their education and career interests.

Research shows that this approach of combining volunteer career role models from the community with fun, interactive career-readiness programming that aligns with state educational standards works. According to a survey of Junior Achievement alumni, 88 percent of adults who have been through JA express career satisfaction. One in 3 JA alumni credit Junior Achievement for influencing their career decision and 1 in 5 say they have worked in the same field as their Junior Achievement volunteer. JA alumni are also more likely to have completed a four-year-degree.

The fact is, we need to help kids understand the connection between education and career readiness and starting the conversation earlier and with deliberate programs is one way to do it.

Lee Lewis is the president of Junior Achievement of Rhode Island in Warwick.