In a recent briefing with Business Forward, Congresswoman Haley Stevens (MI-11) spoke about ways to prepare high school graduates for the future of work: “What used to be woodshop and industrial design is now advanced technologies, computer science, and programming. We need to require those skill sets at the high school level,” she explained.

Stevens should know. Before joining Congress, she covered manufacturing policy in the Obama White House and helped run a digital manufacturing lab that made a point of training displaced workers. She currently serves on the House Committee on Education & Labor and the House Committee on Science, Space & Technology.

For Stevens and for thousands of local business leaders in our network, the future of work is a roadmap for school reform. We should emphasize internships and apprenticeships, stress that college is not always necessary, and invest heavily in worker training.

Our schools are failing, and poor schools hurt our economy. Only one in four high school seniors is “college ready” in math, science, English, and reading. The U.S. ranks 2nd in per-pupil spending on K-12, but still ranks 13th in reading, 37th in math, and 18th in science. If students aren’t qualified for jobs at home, employers will look elsewhere, out of state, and overseas.

Automation is making things worse, because it destroys and creates jobs simultaneously, changing a community’s “job mix” as it goes. STEM jobs are growing six times faster than non-STEM jobs, and employers today have three million STEM jobs they can’t fill. Workers who develop new skills can earn more, while workers that do not earn less – or leave the workforce altogether. The gap between today’s workforce and good jobs is growing.

The good news? First, we understand what our students need: basic technical skills, the ability to learn continuously, teamwork and good judgement, and self-reliance. They must be ready to move through jobs quicker, re-skill when necessary, and take advantage of new technologies. 

Second, many high school grads can obtain the skills they need without the expense of a four-year degree. By working with local employers, high schools can put graduates on a path to high-paying jobs that suit their interests and abilities.

“We don’t need top-down,” Stevens said during the briefing. “What we need is bottom-up. Let’s take best practices and let’s figure out how to share them.”

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