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Our Schools Fail to Prepare Students, Neglect the Basics

Our schools do not prepare students for real jobs and future needs.

A lament often heard from employers is that they cannot find qualified applicants for positions that they have open.

Many of these employers are referring to their need for highly-skilled labor, such as machine shops needing CNC (computer numerical control) operators for their sophisticated machine tools. Other companies say there is a shortage of engineers who are vital to the design and innovation of new technologies and products.

While virtually everyone agrees that these skilled and technical workers are in short supply, the parents and schools are concurrently making little effort to guide the students into areas that are not deemed more “prestigious” and requiring graduate degrees.

On the other side of the coin, we find young folks who are dismayed that they cannot find a job after following the prescribed curricula that was set forth for them by their parents, the schools and the teachers. I define these young folks into several categories from what I have (anecdotally) witnessed.

A+ students who worked hard through four years of college, and now they find themselves living at home with their parents and unable to find a job that enables them to start a career. 

There are several factors that come into play here: Some of these young folks got degrees in areas that are not in demand. They probably could find at least “gainful” employment, but they have not been taught by the system that not everyone can get a job in their chosen field — at least at first — and sometimes you have to find a job in a field as closely related to the one that you love, and work your way up and network into your chosen field. 

And there are those, who just don’t know how to get a job. They have never been taught how to actually find a job, write a resume and make themselves visible to those that are hiring. They fall into the waiting for a phone call syndrome, and have not been taught how to be assertive in a job search.

A common mistake I often witness with this category of job seeker, is that they decide to go back to school for an advanced degree in the same field. After they have achieved that, they find that the advanced degree can become an impediment to their actually securing a job, as an employer is loathe to hire someone with all theory and no practice. They know from experience, that once the employee gains some real world experience, they will leave for greener pastures.

And then there are the graduates who are totally lacking in social graces and self presentation. Showing up for an interview in blue jeans may be OK if you graduated at the top of your class in computer engineering at MIT, but if you are looking to get an engineering job at a corporate manufacturer, you may want to wear a suit and tie, be on time for your interviews, know how to use a fork and knife and not your fingers at a luncheon, and not have “mother” tattooed across your forehead.

Four-year bachelor degree graduates who have a degree in a field, which is hiring, but they cannot seem to get a job in that field. 

These are graduates who managed to slog their way through four years in their field (often one they were “told” to go into), got the grades they needed (earned or not) and got their degree, but they have “overachieved," and gotten into a field in which they will never be an asset to an employer.

Back in the 1950s and 60s this kind of graduate would have gotten into a corporation at the bottom of the corporate ladder, perhaps in a management training program, by the sheer virtue of having a degree. Their climb up the corporate ladder would not get very high, and they would be tasked with some position that today may well be filled by an administrative assistant. They could put in their years of mediocrity, and retire with a pension. 

Those days are over!

These were also the graduates who were sometimes promoted above their capabilities; we’ve all worked with them and even worse, reported to them — enough said.

In today’s world, the best advice these graduates can get, is the advice they should have been given back in high school, and re-train in a trade or skill commensurate with their abilities and/or aptitude.

The no bachelors and no technical degree. These are high school graduates, who most usually started in a four-year college, but dropped out before getting their degree.

These young folks may be the worst victims of an educational system and society that does not recognize the value of learning and achievement, in fields other than academics.

Many of these young folks would make great technical workers, or have great careers in the trades or crafts, but they were only offered a one-lane road, that led to a four-year college.

My interest in whether we are giving the right guidance to our high school students, stemmed from watching my own two children and their follow high school graduates, from Homestead HS, try to find their ways in life after high school. Homestead like Shorewood (where I now live) focused virtually 100 percent on a college prep curriculum.

Using Shorewood as an example, Shorewood High School takes great pride in their students scoring on the ACTs and that an extremely high percentage of them go on to post high school education.

But when I asked the Shorewood HS officials how many of those students “actually” received a bachelors or associates degree, they did not have an answer.

Nobody is bothering to find out if the product they are turning out from Shorewood High School has been properly prepared to climb the next mountain.

From the then chancellor of UWM, I found that less than ½ of the students who come in as freshmen ever achieve a bachelor’s degree, as measured after five years.

Imagine if Boeing produced airliners that could not complete a cross country flight — I think we would label that as a failure — just as I maintain we are failing our students, if they cannot take flight after our four years of teaching and guiding them.

— Just high school, never finished high school, in between high school and (insert question mark).

According to the “Common Wisdom” (CW), these are the young folks who have no future and will never be able to make a decent living.

And unfortunately the CW is correct, but not for the reasons that we may think.

There actually are jobs out there that can pay at least a “living wage” that do not require a two or four year degree. But our high schools fail miserably in even giving these students a fighting chance.

I have held many jobs in my life from some of the lowest entry level to corporate executive, and small business owner. From personal experience I know that there are many jobs that require minimal skills that go unfilled, due to lack of qualified applicants.

If our high schools would do nothing more than the following bare minimum, there would be many hopelessly unemployed people filling productive jobs and earning a least a small part of the American Dream.

Typing, yes, we live in a world of computers, and most of them require the use of keyboards. Aside from pure data entry jobs, many of the most menial jobs are now integrated into the overall IT system, and require real time entry of data by warehouse workers, delivery people, production workers and myriad more.

Driver's license — look at the want ads in the paper. If you have a driver's license, there are delivery jobs galore, warehouse jobs, van drivers, bus drivers, truck drivers, couriers, etc., but we do not have drivers ed in high school anymore, or it is at an added cost, that many families and students just cannot afford.

Basic reading and printing — forget about cursive writing; back in the Stone Ages when I was in grammar school, I can still remember the nuns teaching us how to print and telling us that even a warehouse worker needs to know how to legibly print and we would need legible printing to fill out an employment application. The proverbial fifth grade level reading would be enough for most jobs in this category.

Basic math and fractions, at least enough to make change at the burger counter. More emphasis is needed on fractions. Since the U.S. has still not joined the rest of the world in the metric system, almost all the basic jobs out there, whether setting a machine in a shop, or measuring a board to cut into inches, require the use of fractions. Our schools need to align the math they teach with the real world needs.

Be Presentable for the type of job being applied for. Go to almost any high school and see how the students dress. Pants belted below the butt do not make a good impression on the person doing the hiring. However the worst dressed examples at the high school level (lower grades also) are the teachers. Teachers with polo shirts, open collars, no ties, blue jeans, sweatshirts, male and female, the professional level portrayed by teachers in schools today is abominable. They are the examples for the kids.

Respectful, on time, basic manners and grooming: all of these matter no matter what level job is being applied for. If the kids are not learning this at home, they should be learning it at school. And I don’t buy the excuse that if the parents can’t teach it, the teachers cannot be expected to do so. When my immigrant grandparents came over on the boat, they didn’t have a clue how to teach their kids the “social graces” of the new country — they didn’t know them. But the “melting pot” public schools taught the kids, who often times were the teaching example for the parents.

When I was in high school, the priests taught us how to fold a letter properly to be put into an envelope. I am seeing graduates of our schools who not only don’t have a clue as to how to fold a letter properly, but don’t have a clue as to how to properly write one.

Two recent anecdotal events within the last two months:

First is a graduate from Homestead HS; a 19-year girl who is enrolled full time at MATC. She needs a part-time job to make ends meet — she is on her own. My wife and I helped her compose a resume highlighting her education, experience and aspirations. She did not learn that at Homestead.

Second is a student in the Shorewood system, who when asked about the results of the aptitude test that students are given, said it was not important. When asked why, he said the teacher said it was not mandatory, there was no need to be concerned about it, and students who were absent did not have to take it later.  In other words, he was given the impression it was just a “waste of time." It is not surprising that he did not take the results seriously, as he said he just goofed off in taking it, as it didn’t matter anyway.

I do very much respect teachers who work at their job. And I think there are a lot more good teachers than bad.

The system itself that the teachers work in is the problem. It needs a zero based overhaul to develop one that meets the actual needs of the students — in real time and for the future.

Another overhaul needed is in the academic curriculum that teachers need to complete in order to get their license, and the graduate programs they need to complete to get raises. That entire system is seriously flawed and does not meet the needs of the teachers or the students, but that is a topic for another time.

What do you think? Your opinions are most welcomed!

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

CowDung March 09, 2012 at 04:46 PM
Personally, I'd rather see more involvement in trying to get their kid to graduate college as a competent engineer. We have too many lawyers in the US already... I made it a priority as a parent to make sure that my kids (gradeschoolers) can at least cook, sew, and do laundry. I would hope that other parents would be doing the same...
David Tatarowicz March 09, 2012 at 04:49 PM
@CowDung --- kudos to you --- and no argument that we are certainly in more need of engineers than lawyers.
N. Peske March 29, 2012 at 05:01 PM
It costs $10 to replace a zipper at the tailor's--cheap to fix a hem or a lining, or sew on a button, too. I understand why many kids don't know how to do even these basic things. I'll bet many also don't know how to fix an electrical cord that's fraying, fix a running toilet, or use a power screwdriver, either.
N. Peske March 29, 2012 at 05:03 PM
@Bob, there is rudimentary nutrition information presented as part of science in 7th grade. @CowDung, there are a lot of middle class people who don't know how to cook, or who do, but don't know how to cook healthfully. I remember cooking as part of K-8 education, jr. high, and as an elective in high school in the era when middle class families often had a stay-at-home mom.
Randy1949 March 29, 2012 at 05:34 PM
@Nancy Peske -- Zippers are complicated. It probably makes more sense to pay the tailor than to waste twice as much of your time on it and end up with an amateurish job. Buttons and hems aren't exactly brain surgery.

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