While the legislature is not in session during the summer, work is ongoing in many committees.
This session, I am chairing the Special Committee on Improving Education Opportunities in High School. The committee held its first meeting on July 16 and heard from staff economists and business leaders regarding workforce trends and future needs. At the next meeting, on Aug. 20, we will hear from Department of Public Instruction staff regarding current high school requirements and programs to connect students with career and technical training, as well as from pioneers in education who are beginning to reinvent what we commonly think of as high school.
State law specifies the number of credits required for graduation, and includes requirements about what high schools must offer, like math, science and social studies, for example. The state also requires high schools to develop a plan for students who are at risk of not graduating from high school, offer access to an education-to-employment program, and to provide an appropriate program for students identified as gifted and talented.
School districts are required to partner with technical colleges to create a technical preparation program in each high school to allow a student to earn credit toward a technical college degree. Additionally, programs like the youth apprenticeship program allow students to gain experience through apprenticeships with local businesses. Students in 11th and 12th grade can also participate in the Youth Options program, which allows them to earn college credit while still in high school.
One of the main goals of the study committee is to investigate whether these programs actually work the way they were intended. Compared to other states, we have far fewer students enrolled in Youth Options, for example. The committee’s job will be to consider why this occurs and to determine if changes are necessary to enhance student opportunities in high school.
At the first meeting of the committee, we heard from representatives from the Department of Workforce Development (DWD), Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and Manpower Inc., a global staffing firm based in Wisconsin.
The DWD provided an overview of the national economy, explaining that the nation’s economic recovery following the latest recession is not like previous recoveries since World War Two because fewer new jobs have been created and unemployment levels have remained higher. They also explained that the jobs of today require more education than what students receive in high school because of the increase in technology. Fewer jobs require routine manual skills, while more jobs require workers who interact with one another and can handle varied tasks. Coupling that with the fact that Wisconsin’s workforce is not growing means that we need to find a way to increase productivity, focus on increasing talent and find ways to match talent and need.
Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC) also spoke at the meeting. They highlighted the fact that many manufacturing jobs go unfilled and discussed the reasons for this, including a disconnect between manufacturers and educators, the negative stigma of manufacturing jobs and a lack of understanding of what manufacturing jobs look like in the 21st century and what is needed from employees. Manpower Inc. went further into the mismatch between the skills of employees and the skills needed by employers. They explained that by 2020 there will be 123 million high-skill and high-pay jobs in the United States and only 50 million people with the right skills.
A part of the committee’s charge is to look for ways to promote coordination between different levels within the educational system and employers in the state to make sure that high school students learn the skills they need to be successful in college or a career. This type of coordination is critically important in the 21st century economy. The committee is scheduled to meet five more times before wrapping up at a December meeting.