A new law just built a bridge over America’s skills gap


At this very moment 6.5 million jobs are going unfilled in the United States. That’s the equivalent of a job for every person in Los Angeles and Chicago combined. Why all these open jobs?

It’s the skills gap.

A Pew study from June found that 65 percent of Americans think our students aren’t getting the skills they need to succeed in the workplace. Clearly they’re right, since U.S. employers can’t find candidates with current, relevant skills to fill these jobs. 

{mosads}We could focus on these doom and gloom numbers, or we could do something to change it. This month the public and private sectors worked together to make that important change. In early August the president signed into law H.R. 2353, Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, which reauthorizes and modernizes the Perkins Act for the first time in 12 years. 

Millions of Americans seek careers that will help secure their families a place in the middle class. The modernized Perkins Act — and the innovative programs that connect high school to college and career that it supports – will help secure a middle class job and career for young Americans from all backgrounds and zip codes.

Perkins funding provides high school and post-secondary students with on-the-job training in fields like cybersecurity, advanced manufacturing and health care. But in addition to increasing funding to these programs, the new law requires educators to work with local employers to align high school and post-secondary coursework in ways that prepare students for in-demand jobs in their community.

For several years, a coalition of more than 500 business, education, workforce development, and civil rights organizations worked hard – with support from leaders in both chambers of Congress – to bring the modernized Perkins over the line. By working together, we have opened a pathway to the middle class for millions of American young people, while addressing the U.S. economy’s skills gap by educating and training the workers we need right here at home.

Perkins will help schools create more innovative education programs that reimagine secondary and postsecondary education- focusing curriculum on both the academic rigor and economic relevance graduates need to be successful in the workplace. Among the leaders of such programs is IBM’s P-TECH model, which combines grades 9 to 14 with real work experiences and mentoring, allowing students to graduate with both a high school diploma and a no-cost, two-year associate degree in a competitive STEM field.

Students can graduate P-TECH and be first in line for an in-demand job at IBM or the 500 other companies that are now participating in the model, or they can continue their education toward a four-year degree. There are now nearly 100 P-TECH schools in eight states, and early results demonstrate that they outperform national rates for community college graduation, with an on-time community college graduation rate that is four times the national average.

The modernized Perkins Act supports many pathways from classroom to career, and P-TECH is just one example of what school districts, community colleges and businesses can accomplish when working together. 

Through this significant, bipartisan effort, Congress has laid the groundwork. But modernizing Perkins is just the first step. Now it’s up to education leaders, together with business leaders and local workforce development boards in communities across the country, to seize this moment, explore new models, and put more students in their schools on track for successful careers.

To bring about real and lasting change, we must execute at scale so that programs like P-TECH are freely available to every student. By recognizing the need for career and technical education that is relevant to the evolving needs of industry, engaging and accessible to young people from all backgrounds, and supported at the state and national levels, we can help ensure a successful future for the next generation.

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) co-led the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act. Jennifer Ryan Crozier is President of the IBM Foundation.

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