Are Students Prepared for the World of Work in the 21st Century?

Oct 17, 2018 BY John Zogby
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I’ve been a pollster and opinion researcher since 1984 and among the many projects I’ve led in at least 70 school districts throughout the country is strategic planning – specifically multi-year long term planning involving accessing budgets and looking ahead at resources the community needs for that school district.  Always involved in that work is surveying the community within the school district with a random sampling survey; personal interviews with 15 to 20 opinion leaders; and then holding focus groups with parents and high school seniors. In every instance, what rated the highest in every school district, as well as every segment of the community was this phrase: "Preparing students for the world of work in the 21st century."

That was the button presser.  Some would say reading, writing, arithmetic -- the old senior citizen thing. Others would say technology preparation, language skills. But number one was always ‘Preparation of students for the world of work in the 21st century.’

And so, that became for me the context for which I would advise these school districts. I would ask, “What technology is available? What can you afford? What can't you afford? How do you prepare your teaching staff for this focus? What kind of connectivity do you have with the community at large, with major employers, minor employers?”

Later, I saw more focus needed to be placed on entrepreneurship skills and preparing students for the gig economy— an environment in which temporary positions are common and organizations contract with independent workers for short-term engagements. And whether that gig economy involves starting a business or moving from gig to gig, it's going to have to involve having skills such as independence, survival, flexibility and the ability to market oneself. That must be part of preparing for the 21st century world of work.

While there are some school districts who do that very well, there's still disconnects between employers and school districts, including community colleges. There's something that seems to be missing, some miscommunication. There are employers who still say, "These kids just aren't ready. They lack the skills we need."

Further probing suggests that a lot of the employers aren't prepared to deal with millennials, and now Gen Z. or don't recognize that the students coming out of schools in the last 10 years are so different, and that it's the employers themselves that must be flexible and must change.

Working with CTWS

What I like about the Center for Technology & Workforce Solutions (CTWS) is that it is focused on understanding and curing this disconnect between employers and school districts. CTWS wants to make sure that schools prepare for the world of work in the 21st century.  I like the fact that it’s devoted to collecting best practices, models, and disseminating those models. Secondly, that it has resources and assets available to deal with the disconnect, in turn helping school districts, and helping employers cure whatever it is that they're not communicating with each other. Thirdly, I like the fact that CTWS has as its’ focus, diversity. One obvious characteristic or even means for miscommunication, is that so many employers are boomers and mainly white. And so many millennials, to the tune of 40%, and Gen Z, 48, 50% are non-white. And so, having diversity as a goal is not only the right thing to do, it's just necessary.

My World of Work

I'm not a high-tech person but to stay current, our company has certainly had to change its’ technology many times over the years. I remember collecting public opinion surveys on paper and pencil, all you had to do was call land lines, and two out of three people you reached said, "Oh yeah. I'm happy to take a survey." We were pioneers in online survey research, and pioneers in mobile to web research. Today, we’re getting into collecting public opinion with facial expressions and measuring those facial expressions. So, we've had to change. And part of that change is understanding the workforce as well.

We look forward to working with CTWS to reach out, find and collect these public opinions. And more importantly, analyzing these public opinions. What do they mean? What directions are we moving toward? Is the public buying in, or are we going too fast for the public, or not fast enough? These are important elements that we must provide to the mix.

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John Zogby is senior partner of John Zogby Strategies, a public opinion research and consulting firm.