Educators, businesses join effort to align teaching practices, workplace needs

Missouri’s leading businesses are engaged in an ongoing search for the employees of the future. The trouble is that the right people for the job aren’t always easy to find.

Businesses today want employees who are willing to evolve during the course of their careers— likely changing roles several times. They need people who can apply their knowledge to new situations as they develop. They are searching for staff members who can work across the company, collaborating despite departmental and geographical barriers.

“Gone are the days of hiring a bench scientist who will do that for their entire career,” says Kimberly Prescott, global university relations lead with Monsanto. “Certainly, we need talented individuals in that field, but we’re also looking for people that can adapt to an ever-changing market and continue to grow with us as a company.”

Adaptability is key. Having a workforce full of employees with flexible skills allows a business to better respond to new opportunities in an ever-changing, globally-competitive market.

“We want our new hires to be able to apply what they know in many different scenarios,” says Katie Bergh-Manga, Boeing’s director of global corporate citizenship. “That’s what is going to allow us to develop new products and to innovate into what will be—after 2016—Boeing’s second century.”

The comments from business leaders came during an education summit in St. Louis in late July, hosted by the St. Louis Regional Chamber at the Danforth Plan Science Center in partnership with the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. The summit brought together business and educational leaders to better align Missouri’s educational system with the needs of today’s business community.

By most accounts, students in the United States lag behind students in other advanced nations. The nation’s educational system has been slow to evolve along with the needs of businesses. The result is that many companies are strapped to find the talent they need. Conversely, recent high school and college graduates are often unprepared for the modern workplace.

ACT testing statistics show that only 28 percent of Missouri high school graduates—slightly better than the national average—are fully prepared to enter the workforce or go on to higher education.

“In your company, if only 28 percent of your employees are proficient in the skillsets they need to be successful in their occupation, would that allow your business to thrive and grow? More than likely not,” says Brian Crouse, vice president of the Missouri Chamber Education Foundation.

With the pipeline of new graduates not always matching up with business needs, the United States finds itself in the unlikely situation of having both an unemployment problem and a glut of unfilled jobs.

“We have jobs without people and people without jobs,” says Caitlin Codella, director of K-12 policy with the Center for Education and Workforce within the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. “In fact, there are 4 million open jobs right now at a time when there are 11 million unemployed Americans. The numbers aren’t syncing up. That’s because there is a growing gap between the skills employers need and the skills recent grads have developed. Last year, three out of every four graduating high schools students weren’t adequately prepared for college. It’s obvious the status quo isn’t working.”

Fortunately, new efforts at the local, state and national levels are working to make changes to the educational system to better prepare students for the workplace. The changes aim to create more rigorous, relevant standards for evaluating today’s students.

Part of this change involves teaching students to understand the value of processes and showing them how things they’ve learned can be applied to various kinds of problems in a variety of settings.

Nancy Bergfeld is helping with this change in Missouri. With 37 years of classroom experience, she is now part of an effort to modernize how students are assessed for their work.

Traditionally, schools measured student success by whether students could provide a correct answer to a problem. Today, Bergfeld explains, new standards require students to also show how they came up with the correct answer and to correctly explain their reasoning.

“I’m not just concerned about whether you could solve the problem,” says Bergfeld, who is chair of the Missouri Council of Teachers of Mathematics Professional Development Committee and also works with the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium. “Can you tell me where you gathered the information and how you solved it and why that information was important, and leave out the extraneous information? You have to communicate that.”

The idea is that teaching students to value the thought process will help them become the flexible, adaptable workers that today’s businesses are trying to find.

“That’s going to be so important to those skill sets you are going to need for a job,” Bergfeld says. “Can you communicate and can you analyze and make it make sense within the context of the problem?”

Business leaders are also helping spread the message of the importance of investing in education. They’ve come to appreciate how strong school districts are both good for the community and necessary for business growth.

“In the past, succeeding in business and real-estate was all about location, location, location,” said Joe Reagan, president and CEO of the St. Louis Regional Chamber. “We know today it’s about people, people and people. And if that’s the case, then it’s truly all about education.”

As business leaders watch the new college and career readiness standards fully develop and become implemented in Missouri, there is hope that tomorrow’s job applicants will come ready for both the task at hand, and with the critical thinking skills needed in order to apply their knowledge for the tasks yet to come.

“Many times we’re just not seeing that second step,” Prescott says. “That’s why I’m excited about what the college and career readiness standards are helping us get to. Critical thinking is being able to apply what they’ve learned in many different situations and the standards will help them know how to do that.”

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