Every month since January 2009, more than 20 million Americans have been either out of work or underemployed.
Yet, according to a 60 Minutes report earlier this month, millions of jobs are waiting to be filled. It is estimated that there are currently more than 3 million job openings in the US, with as many as 500,000 of those in manufacturing.
Unfortunately, these employers say they can’t find qualified workers because of the “skills gap,” which starts with the most basic skill set required for an entry-level position and includes showing up on time to reading, writing, understanding basic math and problem solving.
Here in northwest Indiana, as manufacturers continue to harness new technological advancements for their computer-controlled machines, they are often in need of new employees who can program the computers, operate the machines, maintain both and ensure that results are consistent with quality control standards - especially with an entire generation of highly-experienced baby boomers on the verge of retirement, according to Linda Woloshansky, president and CEO of The Center of Workforce Innovations (CWI).
“In the workforce development world, we’re working with employers all the time,” she said. “We have employers who are ready to hire workers right now – if the workers have the skills that the employers need – and we have workers in large number, both employed and unemployed who want these jobs but lack the skills and education level to access them. At a current unemployment rate near 9% in the region, we have over 40,000 unemployed workers, many of whom are not currently equipped with skills to meet the needs of our employers for the openings they have.”
With an eye on seizing new opportunities in a new economy, CWI, in conjunction with the Northwest Indiana Workforce Board, formed a coalition of local leaders from education, industry and business who all agreed on the importance of setting regional priorities when it comes to college and career readiness.
“We set the stage with some conversations over three years ago,” Woloshansky explained. “Everyone was on the same page from day one. Our focus is on the need for increasing educational attainment levels as a prerequisite for job and income growth throughout the region. Once READY NWI, the Regional Education/Employer Alliance for Developing Youth initiative, was firmly established, we created a plan and started implementing it.”
Most recently, 80 representatives from 9 region school districts - teams of teachers, counselors, and administrators from 25 northwest Indiana high schools and middle schools - gathered for their first coaching session at Hobart High School, a follow-up to June’s successful “College & Career Acceleration Summer Institute,” which brought high school leadership teams from across the Midwest together to share innovative college and career acceleration strategies that produce results at the same location.
“I’m seeing a local initiative that we are all taking very seriously, it’s really very powerful,” Hobart superintendent of schools Peggy Buffington, PhD, said. “Schools build their curriculum around academic standards. Indiana is one of 45 states and 3 territories to adopt the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). These standards define the knowledge and skills students should have within their K-12 education careers. The goal is for students to graduate from high school and be able to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing academic college courses and in workforce training programs.”
Learning how to better administer and use EXPLORE, the first of three ACT College Readiness Benchmark assessment tools, schools districts represented at the November 1st coaching session include: Crown Point, Gary, Hammond, Hebron, Hobart, Lake Central, Merrillville, Munster and Portage (other districts committed to the initiative include East Chicago, Lake Ridge and Lowell).
“In addition to examining the need for increased rigor and content changes that align with college and career readiness standards in the high school core curriculum, we also want students to be prepared to maximize the benefits of high school by the end of eighth grade,” Dr. Buffington added. “Research shows us that the transitional years are tough, and eighth grade is pivotal. EXPLORE preps them for very successful first year of high school. Good data analysis shows them how they are making progress toward a goal.”
The ACT College Readiness Benchmarks are scores on the ACT test that represent the level of achievement required for students to have a high probability of success in selected credit-bearing, first-year college courses, measuring English, mathematics, reading and science. Since students develop and crystalize their educational and career interests during high school, EXPLORE provides individualized feedback to students about their interests, which encourages them to choose educational majors and career paths that are consistent with their interests and academic strengths.
Then, in tenth grade, PLAN provides a midpoint measure of academic progress, allowing for adjustments to be made in high school coursework to ensure preparedness in line with a student’s individual college and career goals, followed by the ACT, which is the well-established curriculum-based education and career planning tool that assesses the mastery of state and college readiness standards which are aligned with CCSS.
In short, this series of tests from ACT helps students, parents, teachers and counselors identify course scheduling and developmental activities that are strongly tied to individualized year-by-year career readiness plans.
“As you assess students, you can find and fix challenges along the way,” Dr. Buffington explained. “We have a very dedicated group of secondary educators in our region who have undertaken this initiative to help our students be successful. We are all growing and learning at the same time, that’s the power of it.”
At Crown Point High School, the current group of seniors took EXPLORE in eighth grade.
“It’s given us a common language that’s relevant to talk about post-secondary education goals,” principal Chip Petit said. “In the past we had minimum competency exams on the low end and AP exams on the high end, but nothing in between that told us if we are doing a good job or not. Now, we have national trend data. Our students already have a path established when they enter high school. That’s a good thing for two reasons. First, it establishes relevance – why do I have to learn these things? Second, it allows a student to alter his or her path. It challenges the notion that a student’s academic path is pre-determined. That’s one of the most exciting parts of this regional initiative.”