Executive Summary

In December 2017, America Achieves, in partnership with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), hosted the Global Learning Network 2017 Convening of World-Leading Learners—30 schools invited from six countries.  Together, this group and a variety of national and international experts reflected on the changing nature of the economy, workforce demands, related cross-sector competencies, implications for education, and promising new strategies to better prepare today’s young people for career and life success. Among the emerging themes was the importance of identifying the knowledge, skills, and dispositions (not just degrees or certifications) necessary for young people to access good jobs and meaningfully participate in society. As these conversations progressed, America Achieves Educator Networks recorded panels and interviews, documented key content, and reviewed the research to create a resource that would be beneficial to educators nationally and abroad. We specifically focused on what it means to be career-ready, how schools can develop students’ competencies for success across industry sectors and the important first steps in this process.

Major Economic Trends Requires New Education Response, Beyond Rhetoric

It doesn’t take much to realize that global, national, and regional economies are shifting. The rates of change, interconnectedness of changes, and effects on our ways of viewing the world and living our lives make prior economic shifts (e.g., from the agrarian to the industrial) seem more like evolutions than revolutions, or like slow waves versus a tsunami (1).  The dual influences of technology and globalization, in particular, are causing the world and the workplace to change faster than ever, creating new demands in the knowledge, skills, and dispositions needed for career and life success.

While education level is still related to employability and earnings, “degree is not destiny.” Many of the degrees and credentials that most mattered in the not-too-distant past may not have the same meaning soon. While it’s projected that by 2020 at least 65% of jobs will require education past the high school level (2) and it’s true that on average, today’s 4-year college graduates earn more than a high school graduate, it doesn’t mean that all jobs require a four-year degree (3).  Increasingly, it’s skills that matter; as the world of work changes and automation advances and takes over routine work, cross-sector competencies are becoming even more relevant. People increasingly must be much more able to communicate effectively, work collaboratively, think critically, and engage authentically with others in a global context.

K-12, as well as postsecondary education, must adapt to ensure our students develop those skills most in-demand. While states, districts, and schools continue to voice a commitment to “college and career readiness,” they are increasingly critiqued for seeming to treat “career readiness” as an afterthought.  They are now being called on to move beyond the rhetoric and improve on their career readiness efforts, and many educators are reacting in fast order.  But are we doing so with any greater clarity about our expectations for what a career-ready graduate might look like?

Common Vision Needed: Cross-Sector Competencies

Many high schools are responding to the urgent need to adapt by redesigning their CTE pathways, expanding the number of industry-based credentials offered, offering more dual enrollment options, developing work-based learning opportunities, expanding industry partnerships, developing STEM/STEAM programs and career academies, and/or rethinking core curriculum – including through project-based learning and more core content and CTE integration.  While there is an evidence base to support most of these strategies, there is also considerable evidence to suggest that these interventions are not silver bullets to prepare students for the unknown world ahead and that without clearly defining goals for them, they are likely to miss the targets.

Whatever approach one takes to responding to our fast-changing economy and world of work, it needs to be driven by very clear and measurable definitions for what students need to know and be able to do to be successful in 21st century careers and life. As highlighted in the paper, there are many frameworks and ways of categorizing and defining the needed skills; we propose that employer and community demands for skills be considered in three broad categories, regardless of the framework:

1.    Academics and core content;
2.    Career and industry-specific technical knowledge and skills; and
3.    Cross-sector, employability knowledge, skills, and dispositions.

While many communities have already defined their targets in the first and second areas, the work around setting expectations in the third category, what can be summarized as cross-sector competencies, is less clear and, we argue, is an essential first step.

Process for Developing a Shared Vision

Toward this end, the paper synthesizes some of the best thinking on the topic, including workforce data and existing frameworks, highlights local school and district efforts, links to additional resources from research and data to school websites, and offers the following guiding questions and recommendations for school- and district-level work:

1.    Who are your key stakeholders and how will they be involved in the process of developing and implementing your school or district’s vision of a career- and life-ready graduate?
2.    What existing state and local standards and/or requirements are schools, staffs, and students already accountable for? How can cross-sector competencies be interwoven with academic and technical skills?
3.    How can you ensure against different sets of expectations for different students?
4.    To what extent do you have a developmental vision and approach to mastery of the competencies?
5.    To what extent is multilingualism built into your competency framework and/or reinforced or undermined as a priority?
6.    How do selected competencies set students up for life success and help them become productive community members and citizens?
7.    How do you define and measure success?

Getting Real about Career Readiness: A Focus on Cross-Sector Competencies is the first in a series of multi-media white papers on promising education practices for preparing students for the changing world of work. It reflects both the learning and questions that emerged in planning for and participating in the GLN 2017 convening and America Achieves’ ongoing interaction with the schools, expert participants, and our partners in related projects.  While this is not an exhaustive review, we hope it will provide a powerful lens on the changing world of work and some important first steps K-12 education can take to better prepare our students for it—notably developing a profile of a career-ready graduate and building consensus and planning strategically around that vision.

Read the full paper here. 

(1) World Economic Forum, Are you ready for the technological revolution?, 2015
(2) Georgetown Public Policy Institute CEW, Recovery: Job Growth and Education Requirements Through 2020, 2013
(3) It is notable that by retirement age, those with a bachelor’s degree or higher have a net worth four times higher compared to those with only a high school diploma. Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, The College Payoff, 2011