Preparing Our Students for the New Collar Workforce

College and career readiness was popularized in 2009 under the Obama administration's Race-to-the-Top initiative and it is what fuels the Common Core Standards. College and career readiness is the directive under which most government schools have been operating since then. 

The problem is that honoring, respecting, and preparing our nation for college and career readiness leaves two thirds of our nation's adults (according to the most recent census bureau statistics) as outcasts. Unworthy. Disrespected. Less than.

Most of the generation of parents who raised us and the parents of our students did not graduate college. The college and career readiness mantra is a constant reminder that they have failed in some way even if they did not feel like failures before.

Not only that, but the college degree today has become devalued. Data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York shows that the underemployment rate for recent college grads was 43.5 percent. A report issued  by the Pew Research Center found that only 46 percent of employed Millennials believe their education was very useful in preparing them for a job or career.

The dependence on college clearly is not keeping up with workforce demands.

At this year's World Maker Faire Ed Forum in New York City speaker Sarah Boisvert author of “The New Collar Workforce" explained to the attendees that educators embracing the "College for All" mindset are neglecting the majority of the population for whom college graduation is not a reality. That doesn't mean given up on students. It means recognizing it is okay if college graduation is not a goal. It doesn't need to be. 

That's because today's workforce has many positions available that don't require a traditional college degree. Instead these are skills students can learn in fab labs, maker spaces, and tinker studios. Maker educator Kevin Jarrett, gives them a more familiar name: Digital shop class. There students make things that matter using tools like laser engravers, 3D printers, robotics, and more. These are relevant vocational skills that can prepare students for what some are calling "new collar jobs." These are jobs operating and maintaining machine tools that look a lot different than the blue collar jobs of the past. Instead they have a new set of required skills. Knowing how to operate the machines commonly found in the digital shop class is key for success.  

In her work with the Fab Lab Hub, Sarah Boisvert is using a different strategy than college to prepare students for the new collar workforce. She is developing a digital badge micro-certification program that provides new collar job training. To do this she and her team spoke with 200 large, medium, and small employers in the industry. These employers said they need people with hands-on experience in making things and knowledge of how to repair faulty equipment. The exact activity that happens in these digital shop classes. 

Digital Badges for New Collar Jobs Include:

  • Design for 3D Printing
  • Introduction to CAD Design
  • Fundamentals of SLA 3D Printing
  • Troubleshooting FDM 3D Printers
  • Laser Safety in Manufacturing
  • Master Badges as 3D Printing Operator or Laser Service Technician are a stack of Digital Badges that certify a higher level of skill.

Digital Badges were developed by a collaboration between IBM and Mozilla. They are a secure platform to recognize achievement.

Boisvert, along with Dale Daughtery who created the World Maker Faire suggested that this college obsession was one of the factors that led to our current president being elected into office. He understood that there was a large segment of the population for whom college is not the holy grail.  He saw these people. He spoke to them. He respected them and told them they were important too. Even if they had not graduated college and even if the old factory jobs were gone, there would be new opportunities available.

Possibly influencing Trump is IBM CEO Ginni Rometty who when he was running for office, advised President-Elect Donald Trump of the importance of this new collar workforce. Her letter expressed what she shared in her opinion column for USA Today which urged politicians and business leaders to not think in terms of white collar or blue collar jobs, but to broadly consider these future unfilled positions as “new collar” jobs.

Rometty stresses the importance of looking beyond the four-year degree and instead looking to whether a potential employee has “relevant skills, often obtained through vocational training.” She explains that there is a current talent shortage in the tech industry. IBM alone plans to hire 25,000 new employees in the course of four years and that’s just one company. Code.org says we have 570,926 jobs nationwide and only 49,291 qualified workers.

A New Educational Model – Pathways in Tech Early College High School

Preparation of the workforce for these new collar jobs, many of which don’t require a four-year degree, is crucial. While the Micro credential certification Boisvert’s Fab Lab Hut is putting in place is one path, IBM has designed a new educational model that many other companies have embraced. It is six-year public high school that combine a relevant traditional curriculum with necessary skills from community colleges, mentoring and real-world job experience. The first of these schools – called Pathways in Technology Early College High School, or P-TECH has achieved graduation rates and successful job placement that rival elite private schools. 35% of students from the first class graduate one to two years ahead of schedule with both high school diplomas and two-year college degrees. 

New Collar Jobs of the future illustration with icons

Your Turn

How are you or your school preparing students for the new collar workforce? In what ways do you ensure all your students have opportunities to develop hands on experience? What type of new learning spaces are being embraced by your school are district? What conversations are you having with students and families about some of the new paths to success that are now available to them? 

Lisa Nielsen (@InnovativeEdu) has worked as a public-school educator and administrator since 1997. She is a prolific writer best known for her award-winning blog, The Innovative Educator. Nielsen is the author of several booksand her writing has been featured in media outlets such as The New York Times,The Wall Street Journal, Tech&Learning, and T.H.E. Journal.