Techniques Magazine — September 2015
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The New Employability: Steering Our Students Toward Rewarding Careers
Nicholas Wyman

Today, more than 14 percent of American youth aged 16–24 are unemployed (BLS,2014) . Many in this group have completed high school or college, but cannot find the right pathway that will connect them to work. Meanwhile, college students often experience false starts: Forty percent of those who begin a four-year college program do not graduate within six years, while many of those who graduate still lack the necessary skills to land a job (Symonds, Schwartz, & Ferguson,2011) .

At the same time, the number of job openings stands at historically high levels— over 5 million according to a recent report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS, 2015). Many of these jobs are unfilled because of a lack of workers with the skills employers need. But the problem isn’t just a dearth of qualified applicants with the right technical skills; employers also struggle to find candidates with general workplace skills. High school and college graduates entering today’s workforce lack problem-solving, teamwork, critical thinking, and oral and written communication skills.

Like job-specific technical skills, these foundational skills are best learned through hands-on application. Technical training engages young people as they make the critical transition from school to work, and this training is a direct pathway to a successful and rewarding long-term career. Today, successful careers are made through the continual acquisition of new skills. Career and technical education (CTE) and training are the best ways to enter and stay competitive in a rapidly changing labor market.

Dispelling the “College for Everyone” Myth

There is a common misconception that a traditional four-year college degree is the only pathway to success. Yet successful careers are not handed out with college diplomas; they are built through the acquisition of real work skills and getting what I call “the right education, at the right time.” Currently, nearly 45 percent of recent college graduates are underemployed— they are not working in jobs that require their degree (Abel & Deitz, 2015). Many are lacking in basic employability skills—communication, problem solving and time management (Hart Research Assoc.,2015) . These skills and others, which can be gained through CTE and training, are the key ingredients for many people looking to find their dream career.

Too many students who start college do so without a clear roadmap. They don’t know how their degree will connect to an actual job, or whether they are even pursuing the right career. The key is to choose the right educational pathway at the right time for the individual. CTE pathways do not rule out higher education; instead, they provide opportunities to build the job-specific and transferable skills to continually evolve one’s career.

There are many exciting opportunities to redefine what a successful and rewarding career can look like. Far from being second-best, skills-based learning is the way to make a dream career a reality. And I’m not just talking about low-paying or low-status jobs that (unfortunately) people tend to associate with CTE. I’m talking about high-paying technical jobs like computer programmers and the new age of automotive technicians, as well as careers in IT, health care, hospitality, business and more.

Do Apprenticeships Hold the Key?

Apprenticeships are the most powerful tool we have for closing the middle-skills gap, combating youth unemployment and stemming the declining fortunes of the middle class. Dollar for dollar, no other form of job training packs as much punch. Every dollar that governments invest in apprenticeships returns $27 in economic growth (Reed et al., 2012).

Apprenticeships create more opportunities for a thriving middle class because apprentices don’t carry tuition debt. Rather than borrowing money and inflating national student loan debt, which is already over $1 trillion, apprentices can put their income to work contributing to the economy.

The best part of apprenticeship training is that it is not a well-meaning but ineffectual jobs program; instead, it directly connects young people to real jobs beginning on day one. Apprentices earn while they learn, and they gain experience in doing a real job every working day. According to the U.S. Department of Labor (2015), upon completing their training, 87 percent of apprentices are hired at an average starting salary of over $50,000 (more than many four-year college graduates can expect to earn). Apprenticeships are a smart way to launch a career without being crippled by student debt.

Accelerated Pathways to Dream Careers

Apprenticeships are an effective way to pursue a personally rewarding dream career.Consider James, a young automotive expert who left university to undertake an apprenticeship.

James always had a passion for the automotive industy. As a child, he was constantly playing with cars. “My uncle has a mechanical workshop, so on school holidays I’d go there and spend every minute of every day helping him,” explains James. “Cars are just something that I’ve been brought up with and always had a passion for.”

But, like so many high school students, when it came to the end of high school, James took a different path. “I wanted to make my parents proud, so I decided the best way to do that was to go to college and study autmotive engineering. I figured that way, at least, I’d still be working in the automotive industry,” says James.

By the end of his second year, James was completely confused. He wasn’t sure of the direction his career was heading.“I kept asking myself: What is my job actually going to be? Do I really want to sit behind a desk and do calculations all day long?” says James. “It was then that my mum gave me the most important piece of advice that I’ve ever received. She said, ‘If you do what you love, you’ll do well anyway.’ So, with that in mind, I decided to start an apprenticeship.”

At 19, James landed an interview for an automotive apprenticeship. “The workshop manager asked me why I wanted to do an apprenticeship,” says James. “I pleaded with him to just give me a chance.I loved the industry. I knew it was what I wanted to do. I just needed someone to give me a shot.”

It was a steep learning curve for James. By halfway through his first year, he was already servicing cars. By the end of the year, he was not only rebuilding transmissions, but also learning how to use diagnostic equipment. He even came to understand the ins and outs of new electric and hybrid technologies.

Most importantly, James had plenty of support from his employer. “I could push as hard as I wanted. No one stopped me.I was hungry to learn, to achieve and to do well. It was my passion for working on cars, for doing what I loved, that pushed me to succeed,” says James. He powered through and by the end of his third year, James was qualified and released a year early.

James has a strong desire to inspire school-leavers. “I find it a real shame that trades and apprenticeships are looked down upon. It has been an amazing journey for me, and I don’t see why it couldn’t be the same for others. If you really have a passion, don’t hestitate in trying. An apprenticeship is a great way to learn. Just go for it. Like my mum told me, ‘If you love it, then you’ll do well anyway.’”

James’ CTE training also taught him a far more valuable skill, a skill that all upwardly mobile, entrepreneurial people need to foster: adaptability.

Today’s professionals need to be far more adaptable and proactive to stay relevant and useful in a fast-changing, increasingly high-tech world of work. According to a recent LinkedIn survey of more than 1,400 hiring managers at U.S. Fortune 500 companies, the two skills most prized in potential hires are problem solving and the ability to learn quickly and handle change (Schnidman, 2014).

Hands-on learning experiences like apprenticeships and other forms of CTE training give students a real career edge: the transferable foundational skills to succeed in any line of work.

Getting the Skills Career Edge

The following steps are sure to give your students that advantage they need to succeed in today’s workforce.

1 Follow a Passion and Start Building Skills

Ultimately, life is about being happy. We all have different learning styles, interests and talents. There is no reason we should all follow the same educational or career development pathway. With skills-based training, students can pursue a passion while gaining the knowledge and experience to build a rewarding career.

Succeeding in today’s job market requires the continual acquisition of new skills. CTE pathways provide opportunities for stackable credentials—certifications or training programs that build on one another with a corresponding rise in earning potential. The Manufacturing Institute, for example, has streamlined stackable credentials for various jobs in advanced manufacturing through its skills certification system. Stackable credentials offer a clear career pathway and allow workers the flexibility to earn while they learn.

A number of forward-thinking companies offer professional development opportunities for their employees, including online courses, certifications and internships. MGM Resorts International, Starbucks, STIHL, Whole Foods Market and American Infrastructure are a few examples of companies that have integrated skills building and professional development for employees into their business model.

It’s important to see one’s career as constantly evolving. Whether independently Or through an employer, take every opportunity to acquire new credentials.

2 Gain Practical Experience While Still in High School

Innovative high schools today work closely with local industry to provide career training, workplace-based learning and direct pathways to jobs. The P-TECH schools and the Academies of Nashville are excellent examples of high schools where the curriculum is directly connected to local labor markets.

Even if these options are not available, though, students can seek out part-time work to get a foot in the door of a particular industry. The key is to make sure it’s in their field of interest. For someone interested in hospitality or customer relations, a job in a restaurant or café is a great place to start. For aspiring entrepreneurs, an entry-level job in retail can be the right opportunity to start gaining business and interpersonal skills.

3 Seek out an Education Provider That Offers Innovative Curriculum

To be successful in the modern workplace, students need both strong academics and real-world workplace skills. Too many colleges today fail to make direct connections between academics and real jobs.When considering a technical or four-year college, look for programs that combine academics with hands-on experience in a real workplace.

Throughout the United States, a growing number of community colleges are forging strong partnerships with local industries to develop programs that directly link academic study to available jobs.Seek out apprenticeships or other CTE programs that include job shadowing, internships or mentoring. Learning by doing is the best way to gain the real-world employability skills most valued in the 21st-century job market.


Abel, J. R., & Deitz, R. (2015, May 8). The class of 2015 might have a little better luck finding a good job.Liberty Street Economics. Retrieved from the-class-of-2015-might-have-a-little-better-luck-finding- a-good-job.html#more

Bureau of Labor Statistics, United States Department of Labor. (2014, August 13). Employment and unemployment among youth summary. Retrieved from htm

Bureau of Labor Statistics, United States Department of Labor. (2015, July 7). Job openings and labor turnover May 2015. Retrieved from

Hart Research Associates. (2015). Falling short? College learning and career success. Retrieved from

Reed, D., Liu, A. Y-H., Kleinman, R., Mastri, A., Reed, D., Sattar, S., & Ziegler, J. (2012). An effectiveness assessment and cost-benefit analysis of registered apprenticeship in 10 states. Retrieved from apprenticeship_10states.pdf

Schnidman, A. (2014, October 10). What it takes for a young professional to get hired today [Web log Comment]. Retrieved from to-get-hired-today

Symonds, W. C., Schwart z, R., & Ferguson, R. F. (2011).Pathways to prosperity: Meeting the challenge of preparing young Americans for the 21st century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

United States Department of Labor. (2015). American apprenticeship grants. Retrieved from

Nicholas Wyman is a workforce development and apprenticeship expert, author and speaker, and he is the CEO of the Institute for Workplace Skills and Innovation. His book JOB U is a practical guide exploring affordable and unconventional pathways to building rewarding careers. E-mail him at

Nicholas Wyman is a workforce development and apprenticeship expert, author and speaker, and he is the CEO of the Institute for Workplace Skills and Innovation. His book JOB U is a practical guide exploring affordable and unconventional pathways to building rewarding careers. E-mail him at

Nicholas Wyman will be presenting “Skilling UP: Why Skills-based Training Is the Perfect Fit for Gen Y.” Skills training is a natural match for the entrepreneurial mindset of Gen Y. Getting a cluster of skills that can evolve, ensuring young people don’t obtain just one degree and become “locked in,” is a critical ingredient to a successful and rewarding career. Find out more about this exciting topic at ACTE’s CareerTech VISION in New Orleans, Louisiana, November 19–22.