Opinion Columns & Blogs

Viewpoints: Coming of age in California and the need to prepare young people for good work

New reports that 15 percent of American young people are neither in school nor working have grabbed national headlines. Here in California, I hope they grab us by the throat.

In the cities of Los Angeles and Riverside, more than 100,000 teens and young adults ages 16 to 24 are idling on the margins of our economy. Out of school. Not now, and perhaps never, employed. Few or no education credentials. No real experience to put on a résumé.

Economists call them “underutilized labor.” Meanwhile, some of our leading and fastest-growing industries – biotech, advanced manufacturing, IT – bemoan the lack of qualified workers. It’s a bedeviling mismatch that warrants the combined effort of our political, business and education sectors to solve.

In this year’s budget, the Senate championed and won approval for the new $250 million Career Pathways Trust, which will support competitive grants to school/college/business partnerships that expand work-based learning opportunities for students. The Career Pathways Trust is designed to address a critical component that has been missing: a full-fledged commitment from business and industry statewide to partner with schools and community colleges to provide work-based learning experiences for students starting in high school.

Is this a brave new world we’re envisioning? Hardly. I recently returned from Switzerland, where I studied this kind of education-business partnership that has thrived there for decades, where more than half of all high school students start meaningful apprenticeships at age 16, and where, by the way, youth unemployment sits at a worldwide low of 4 percent. Swiss teens spend at least three days a week on the job – in banks, architecture firms, advanced manufacturing concerns, restaurants and insurance companies – and the rest of the week in school.

To American advocates of college opportunity for all, this may sound like old-school tracking. It’s not. Students can change their minds and switch apprenticeships. Those who choose apprenticeship can later or simultaneously complete the requirements to attend university. They also have the option to further their professional expertise by attending universities of applied sciences, earning degrees that boost their career opportunities and earning power.

Swiss industry has embraced the model to the point where young apprentices make up 10 percent of some companies’ payroll. Industry associations develop curriculum and exams for certificates, which are portable credentials for young people. These companies don’t take on youths out of the goodness of their hearts, nor for the PR. Cost-benefit analyses show that participating businesses more than break even, from the standpoint of both productivity and workforce development.

California is not Switzerland, and we can’t simply cut and paste policy solutions from one to another where populations and cultures are distinct. But all of us – policymakers, educators and business leaders – can draw inspiration and lessons from a system that serves both its young people and its economy so well.

Yes, there may be challenges to bringing young people into the workplace. But the benefits could be profound for both students and employers. If the work experience is aligned with the educational program – and it must be – students get relevance that brings life to what might otherwise be rote learning. They gain a firsthand understanding of what further education and training they’ll need to advance in the fields they’re trying on for size. They also get a huge down payment on their future: meaningful work experience that could be the first step on the road to a decent career.

Employers benefit by helping to shape the workforce development they find so lacking in parts of the public education system. They also get to test the potential of future employees.

In California, we have already begun to put pieces in place to make change. The economy is improving. Our public school accountability index – the API – will soon, for the first time, underscore graduation rates and student preparation for college and career. Increasing numbers of school districts are shifting to the more relevant teaching approach of “linked learning,” but all of our students deserve that opportunity.

As I head into my final year in the Legislature, this is my top focus. I no longer have the luxury of multi-year projects, two-year bills, or do-overs. When it comes to making lasting change, there is no more important challenge to tackle.

When the $250 million Career Pathways Trust rolls out in January with the Department of Education’s expected release of the request for applications, the state of California will put up significant capital toward preparing our young people for good work. What we need now are business partners who will step up to share their knowledge, their workplaces and their needs with schools and colleges that serve the future workforce. The returns will make winners of both students and our economy.