Kid, you're on your own

The transition from school to work

FOR many of the million-plus who have just graduated from high school and who will not be going on to college, the weeks ahead ``will be like stepping into a black hole,'' as Business Week writer John Hoerr put it. ``Most of them face a period of prolonged unemployment or low-paying, part-time jobs,'' said Hoerr. ``The reason: There is no link between school and work in the United States.''

Here in the US we haven't learned about ``transitioning.'' We are the only industrial nation that lacks a conscious national policy to move non-college-bound youth from school to work.

Many of our kids travel, hang out, or otherwise poke at the edges of a career after high school, rather than jumping squarely into a decent position with a future. But the Unfortunate fact is that many simply lack the skills needed to perform effectively in today's change-prone workplace.

The vitality of our work force and, therefore, our economy depends on changing this pattern. We must develop and implement improved systems of delivering skills training to future workers; then channel them from schools to stable, well-paying jobs. Here's why.

Each week brings us closer to labor shortages across America. Growth of the nation's work force is at a 50-year low. That force grew at a rate of almost 3 percent a year in the 1970s. But this decade will see annual growth of just 1 percent per year.

New opportunities will open for women who have not yet joined the work force and for minorities, the disabled, and disadvantaged. But in most cases employers will have fewer applicants to choose from and, in many cases, much greater difficulty in attracting employees with job-ready skills.

Here in Wisconsin, about 40 percent of high-school students who will graduate next spring - some 26,000 - will go on to post-secondary education. The other 28,000 graduates will head directly into the labor market. As state school superintendent Herbert Grover stresses, most will ``seek employment without specific job skills.''

A national study a number of years ago found that nearly 20 percent of the nation's schools employed no counselors to assist non-college-bound students, and another 23 percent had only one counselor with this assignment. Because of other pressures, ``job placement'' has been at the bottom of the worry list of high-school counselors. They are more likely to fill their days helping students select courses, assisting with college selection and admission, or handling attendance and discipline problems.

Our international competitors are trying a variety of approaches to help young people make the transition into jobs. West Germany does it through an apprenticeship system that combines classroom work and on-the-job instruction. In Japan, schools select students for referrals to employers. Other countries often provide strong employment counseling and job placement functions within schools, or a government labor market authority works cooperatively with the schools.

Look for much debate on these ``transitioning'' issues during the '90s in this country.

Vocational education is not second-class, and that myth - wherever it exists - must be dispelled. We must break down the barriers between college-prep education and vocational-prep education. Not everyone will go to college and not everyone who does will finish. We need to stress the importance, worth, and dignity of blue-collar work.

Today, 70 percent of our work force does not have a four-year college degree. This is a critical group because they keep America running; they permit our offices, stores, and factories to function.

It's almost un-American to suggest it, but not all students are likely to be scholars. And what we are talking about is making winners out of ordinary students.

The 16 to 18 million jobs the nation's economy will create this decade will be tougher, harder assignments than those generated by the economy of the '80s. Our success will turn on our ability to empower our work force with the skills needed as we move toward the 21st century.

The United States must focus attention on giving its young people a transition to meaningful jobs, and on sensitizing them to the need to be effective lifelong learners.

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