Bolling: What’s It Take to Build a 21st Century Workforce?

I was intrigued by this article in the Richmond Times Dispatch: Lots of effort, limited results spark Youngkin’s call to change workforce training. It discussed Governor Glenn Youngkin’s efforts to enhance workforce training programs in Virginia.

I know more than a little bit about this, for it is an area I focused heavily on during the McDonnell administration as part of my responsibilities as Virginia’s Chief Jobs Creation Officer.

As you might expect, I am a strong supporter of any effort to enhance workforce training and development. However, this has been a priority for most governors, and quite frankly, they have not made a great deal of progress. Why? I would argue it is because we start focusing on workforce training too late in the educational process.

Let me explain.

Most of today’s workforce training programs are focused on post-secondary education. In other words, once a student graduates from high school we try and focus their attention on pursuing careers that are targeted toward high demand workforce needs. That’s simply too late. By that time most students have made their career decisions, and too many have dropped out of the educational pipeline completely.

IMHO, the secret to getting the most out of these programs, and truly preparing young people for careers that are meaningful and targeted toward high demand needs, is to get them into an appropriate educational pipeline in high school, or maybe even in middle school, not on a post-secondary level.

Do you remember the old days? The days when most students had to select an educational track that they pursued while in high school? I do. You had to pick a track that might orient you toward college preparation or vocational education or home economics. In those days vocational education was fairly limited and extremely targeted, but these days it could encompass almost anything.

Here’s the bottom line. Not every student needs a college degree to be a success in life. We need workers who have skills that are targeted toward high demand jobs, and there’s no reason why we cannot identify these students earlier in their educational journey and give them the skills they need to compete and succeed in these jobs of the 21st century.

Unfortunately, public education seems to have adopted a “one size fits all” approach over the past several years. We want to treat every student in the same way. We want to teach every student the same thing, and prepare them for the same things, even though their interests, skills and journey in life may be very different. I don’t think we’ve done many of these students a favor, nor have we succeeded in building the workforce we need to accommodate 21st century jobs.

I wish Governor Youngkin well as he tries to tackle this issue as other governors before him have done. But he will not succeed unless he is willing to tackle the way we educate students at the K-12 level, not just on a post-secondary level.

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