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How To Help The Future Workforce Question The Status Quo Of Higher Ed

April 30, 2021

It’s no secret that Generation Z marches to the beat of its own unique drum.

With college decision days quickly approaching, today’s Gen Z teenagers — many of whom are finishing the strangest senior year of high school in recent memory — now look out onto a horizon of uncertainty.

As they survey the landscape and head off to college and eventually a workforce that has been permanently reshaped by the pandemic, teens are beginning to demand more: more affordable education, more stable jobs and more fulfilling careers. Nonprofits, especially those operating in or adjacent to the education sector, can play a guiding role in supporting Gen Z.

My organization recently partnered with VICE Media to survey a sample of teenagers across the United States for the third time in roughly a year to see how their attitudes about college and careers have shifted throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. What we found is emblematic of how Gen Z sees the world: Rather than going with the flow or simply accepting things for the way they are, this generation is questioning the status quo — a trend that has only intensified during the pandemic. For example, 53% of teens said they are considering going to a four-year college, down from 71% in May 2020. On the other hand, options like community college, pursuing a career immediately or enrolling in a career and technical education (CTE) program have grown more popular over that same period.

A recent study by SimpsonScarborough also found that many students are deflecting from immediately pursuing a four-year college directly out of high school, especially in the wake of the pandemic, with many students considering a gap year or community college. And with community college and CTE offering less costly, shorter-term options for students looking for a career path other than a four-year degree, it’s time for the rest of us to rethink some long-held conventional wisdom about what educational options are best designed to serve what students.

Recent findings from a Gallup poll commissioned by the Carnegie Corporation of New York found that many parents also support shorter, career-focused programs over a four-year option. In fact, nearly half want alternatives to a four-year college for their high school graduate.

Career education is well-positioned to shape the post-pandemic workforce and meet the needs of students and businesses struggling amid the economic turmoil caused by Covid-19, given its short-term programs designed to arm graduates with the skills they need to succeed immediately in high-demand fields.

As the parent of three card-carrying members of Gen Z, I know more than most that today’s young people are inclined to chart their own path and question authority. But an independent streak alone isn’t enough to overcome a broad lack of awareness of the career-focused education options available — more than half the students we surveyed said they didn’t even know what CTE is, though their higher education desires align with what CTE provides.

For example, more than one in three high schoolers we surveyed in our study identified “building connections for my future career,” “identifying what career path(s) I can pursue,” and “hands-on/on-the-job learning” as important parts of their future college experience. Meanwhile, half expressed concern over graduating with a high amount of debt, and 40% did the same about not being prepared for a job after graduation. CTE and alternative options can fill these gaps, as long as we collectively answer the call and ensure members of Gen Z are equipped with the resources they need to make the best decisions for themselves about their college and career paths.

Gen Zers also aren’t shy about demanding that others step up to the plate to help. There’s room for nonprofit employers to play a role in this push by offering resources and support for young people looking to pave their own path, including:

  • Becoming knowledgeable of post-secondary pathways and empowering learners to follow the path that’s right for them. Nonprofits — and indeed all employers — must develop a deeper understanding of their talent pipelines while providing a comprehensive comparison of all education paths and the potential return on investment of each. Our survey and others found a dearth of knowledge and resources about the options available leaving students and parents unable to make educated decisions about the future.
  • Shifting the focus to skills not degrees. Skill-based hiring is seeing a surge of momentum after an executive order from the past administration called for federal employers to expand their criteria and prioritize skills over degrees as they compete for talent in certain job fields. By lessening the requirement for a degree, organizations have the ability to welcome workers with a wider range of educational backgrounds and experiences.
  • Embracing lifelong learning. Gen Z understands education isn’t a “one and done” concept. They expect to reskill and upskill throughout their lifetimes. Nonprofit employers who embrace that mentality may see increased retention and satisfaction by allowing and investing in employees who continue their education and training.

Generation Z is already questioning the status quo. If the rest of us join them and do the same, we can help them overcome the uncertainty posed by Covid-19 and realize a more prosperous, independent future. And in doing so, we can decrease the stigma that has pushed CTE into a corner for years and instead elevate it in the career path discourse.

Jeremy Wheaton is president and CEO of ECMC Group.

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