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Workforce Experts Share Future Needs, Challenges at Milken Institute Global Conference


How can schools prepare elementary-aged children for future job needs? What ways can the workforce help manage the transition?

A panel of high-flying authorities, including NMSI CEO Bernard Harris, the head of Siemens USA and U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, addressed these questions during a session at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills this week. As STEM-related jobs are some of the most well-paid and fastest-growing positions, Harris said school systems, corporations and private philanthropies should focus resources on improving STEM education.

“Whether it’s going into college or whether it’s vocational school…whatever that training is, it has to involve STEM in some form or fashion,” he said, adding that skills learned in STEM education are needed across career fields.

Jonathan Sokoloff, managing partner of private equity investment firm Leonard Green & Partners, L.P., said companies in its portfolio are in an “arms race” to hire people in technology fields, which leads to large compensation packages for people well-educated in this area.

Along with equipping students with knowledge, Harris said they also need the know-how to figure out how to adapt to jobs of the future. Older Americans often worked 30-plus years in the same position, but young people new to the job market are switching jobs at least every five years, causing a greater need for nimble, life-long learners.

While more students are pursuing postsecondary education, many aren’t earning a degree in six years. One reason? A lack of college readiness. “They’re not prepared, and we want to make sure they’re prepared,” Harris said, referring to NMSI programs.

Ross, who’s critical of hardline college-for-all movements, praised community colleges for creating degree programs that match job market needs. However, he noted a need for earlier intervention.

“These kids are already post-high school,” he said of those pursuing certification and other paths to high-skilled trade careers. “It would be much more efficient to get them at a much earlier age.”

Harris agreed, adding, “It’s important for us as educators to connect the dots for the kids … not reach them in high school when it’s almost too late. You’ve got to engage them in elementary school and certainly by middle school and introduce them to these concepts like computer science, and we get to them by showing them how it’s relevant to their life.”

As one example, Harris said he likes to tell children he meets that a knowledgeable, intelligent person in STEM created the video games they play. Another way to reach students, he shared, is when teachers have specific STEM expertise.

“The subject you loved the most was taught by someone who was very knowledgeable in the field,” Harris said. “Whether it’s chemistry, biology – for me it was my science teacher. And so, we want to make sure the teachers have the training they need for that.”

During the session, Harris unveiled a NMSI-led collaborative resource that demonstrates areas in the country that appear to have gaps in quality STEM education. About 50 organizations worked on the STEM Framework for Success, which identifies 10 conditions, practices and outcomes that show how well states, school systems and schools are performing in STEM education. Using this framework, an interactive map called the STEM Opportunity Index shows how states are doing in these 10 areas. By the end of this year, NMSI will add the school systems and school level data.

“We want to make sure that communities are aware of the capability of their teachers, their students and preparing this next generation,” Harris said.

Lauding the work, Ross said, “The work that NMSI is doing is immensely important. I don’t think we can overstate the importance.”

Watch the full discussion and join the conversation.