Will Our Students Be Prepared to Enter the Workforce?

The development of newer and more advanced technology has had many effects on today's society. Industries' use of new technology to improve its processes has necessitated new skills in many industries. Often this results in the need for fewer workers to perform the requisite task, and leaving many workers who have outdated skills without a job.

Workers with inadequate education or training and young workers with little or no experience may be unable to get jobs because many employers believe these employees would not produce enough to be worth paying the legal minimum wage or union rates. The employee then has to be trained in the new skills required, or find another job. All too often the new job is at a lower pay scale.

It would seem that the United States would not have a problem with under-skilled, under-educated workers since the U.S. became the world's leader in technology because of its advanced system of technical education.

Partnering Effort

Teachers and the business community must become concerned and active in coming to a solution that will be beneficial to themselves and the student. They will need to work together, rather than merely place blame for sub-standard student performance in the workplace.

Teachers need to support changes in the school curriculum and for setting standards.

Business, on the other hand, must keep educators informed of what skills are expected of the people hired. Business can also help by teaming with schools to set standards -- and provide needed work experience for students.

Parents, too, must become concerned and take some responsibility in their children's future. They need to take an active part in their children's schooling. They need to make sure that their school officials know of those concerns, and will expect feedback in return.

Problems of the U.S. Educational Systems

The following have been some of the problems faced by the educational systems of our country:

Our educational system has been unable to adequately prepare our young people fast enough for the changing work force. The U.S. spends some $275 billion each year on public education, yet less than half of the federal education dollar ever reaches the classroom for instruction.[1]

A high school graduate today is fortunate to just have the skills necessary to obtain a menial job, with little chance to better their situation, unless they obtain additional training. Only now do our government and educators realize that to be competitive in the job market a person requires advanced training, at least two years beyond high school.

By the year 2000, 65% of all jobs will require more than a high school education, 20% of all jobs will require a bachelor's or postgraduate degree. The other 15% will be unskilled labor.[2]

Traditionally, American public schools have served as a method to change and improve society as a whole, geared more towards academics and socialization than preparing someone for the work force. Only if a student was thought not to have academic abilities were they then offered vocational or technical training. This left the impression to the student and their peers that they were not smart enough to take regular courses.

The United States, not having any national standard of education, leaves the responsibility of educating its people up to individual states, each having widely differing standards, even within the state itself.

The need for continuing professional education is generally acknowledged, but there are disagreements as to whether such education should be mandatory. Controversy also exist over who should control such regulatory processes -- government agencies, professional associations or school faculties?

To improve the ability of our nation's youth to enter the labor force with the ability to adjust and learn new technology, the present thought on what will be taught in school must change. Through the adoption of national standards, we could make the necessary changes. Then our children would have the necessary skills and be prepared for the 21st century workforce.

The German Model

We could adopt, or rather develop, a system similar to that in Germany. There, children begin their primary education with four years at a Grundschule (primary school). On completion of the Grundschule at about age 10, students are given an extensive test. Its results largely determine their subsequent schooling track.

Almost half of the students then go on to a Hauptschule (post-primary school) for five years. Then they undertake a three-year vocational training program, which includes on-the-job experience plus classroom instruction at a Berufsschule (vocational school).

Approximately one-fifth of students who finish Grundschule next attend a Realschule (secondary modern school). There they take a six-year course emphasizing commercial and business subjects. After Realschule these students may enter a Fachoberschule (two-year vocational college).

About one in four students enters a Gymnasium (junior and senior school) after Grundschule. The Gymnasium offers a rigorous nine-year program that culminates with exams for the Abitur (diploma), which is needed for university entrance.

Sounds good in all, but even Germany has experienced growing pains with this system of education. Under reforms introduced in the 1970s, the rigid distinctions among the three types of schooling were loosened. Students are now permitted to change from one kind of school to another during the course of their education. Such mid-course changes are easiest at small but growing numbers of comprehensive schools offering all three programs: vocational, commercial and academic.

Schools of continuing education for adults, such as the many Volkshochschulen (people's universities), offer a variety of courses and have some programs leading to diplomas.[3] Under this system of education, students are prepared to enter the workforce many years before they enter specific vocational training. As a result, Germany's workforce is second to none.

Could We Develop a Similar System Here?

The U.S. educational system is not that different -- we could adopt a similar system here. We need to put more emphasis on identifying students' needs and abilities early in their schooling, through testing and counseling. In this way, the student will know what is expected of him or her. They will have the information necessary to make knowledgeable decisions about what they will have to do to achieve their goals.

U.S. students have no idea what is expected of them. Many do not even know what they plan on doing after high school, particularly if they are not college bound. And if they do know what they want to do, they may not know how to achieve it. With an educational system like Germany's, the student would be guided along a course best suited to their needs - and will have obtained job skills in the process.

Industry and business, on the other hand, must put training programs in place to ensure their existing employees can adjust to the changes from new management practices and technology. That is happening in major firms; four out of five U.S. corporations with more than 500 employees now offer educational opportunities to their workers.[4] But middle and smaller firms must join in as well. In addition, many professional associations have educational programs for their members.

The statistics are compelling. They show that U.S. employers spend more than $30 billion (that's with a "B") a year to train and educate their workforce. And millions of this is spent on remedial training the worker should have received in school.[2]

Many schools do provide the opportunity for students to gain actual work experience as part of their education. This has been recognized as beneficial, and is increasingly being emphasized in youth counseling. Vocational and career counseling has had active support from trade unions and, now, more and more from business and industry. Such counseling is now seen as contributing to the common goal of an educated workforce.

National standards, supported by government and business, would go a long way in improving (and lessening) the problems faced by today's worker. These standards, however, would have to be free of the paralyzing federal bureaucracy that presently encumbers real reform in our educational system.

The need for national standards must be supported, without regard to personal bias from teachers groups, religious organizations and other special interest groups. Standards do not have to represent a particular point of view - they need only to emphasize the basic skills required to succeed in everyday life. This has to be done for the benefit of our children, and the country as a whole.

Unless improvements in the U.S. educational system catches up with the needs of both business and the student - on a national basis, not just in pockets - we will continue to have problems with un- or under-employment and a rising crime rate among the youth of our nation. Until our educational system reaches this stride, our young people will not be fully prepared to enter the workforce.

Robert Louis Stevenson III is an Instructor, Level III, at the Bath Iron Works in Maine. A retired Master Chief Petty Officer, he was a Master Training Specialist and spent most of his 23 years in the U.S. Navy training and counseling young people. Stevenson is also a graduate student at New Hampshire College in its Masters of Business Education program. E-mail: [email protected].


  1. Eds., (July 31, 1995),"Arguments for Cutting Goals 2000," U.S. News and World Report, p.43-45.
  2. Leonard, Bill (July 1990), "From School to Work," HR Magazine, pp.31-33
  3. Strinz, Wolfgang (June 1996). "The Dual Training System - The Key to Germany's Quality Workforce," World Trade, pp.76.
  4. Eds., (July 31, 1995),"Citizen's Toolbox," U.S. News and World Report, p.48.

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.