You did everything right. You graduated high school with good grades. You got into a decent college. You earned a respectable degree (most likely in business, if statistics are any indication). And so you entered the job market with your head held high and took your first job…as a cashier.
Does this sound unlikely? It shouldn’t. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, in 2014 44% of college graduates were employed in a job that did not require a college degree. Indeed, college graduates are discovering it’s much more difficult than they expected to find work in a field that requires a college degree; instead they are settling for lower-paying, lower-skilled jobs. These young people are joining the growing group known as the underemployed. And if you’re thinking the answer is more education, think again. In 2014, the number of underemployed people among holders of master’s degrees was 59%.
Unfortunately, it gets worse. A study by ETS in 2015 found that Millennials in the U.S. are less prepared to perform in the workplace than any of the other 23 countries included in their report. Participants were tested on numeracy, applicable literacy, and problem solving skills related to technology. American Millennials scored last, or near last, in all three areas.
And so we must ask: what skills aren’t being taught in our schools that are essential for our young people to compete in today’s global market?
I believe the answer can be boiled down to four main points: foundational knowledge, field knowledge, friendly networks, and fortitude.
The first point is one any educator could explain in an instant. When you build a building, you need a strong foundation or everything falls apart. The same is true for an effective mind. Foundational knowledge has historically meant math and literacy. If you lack “reading & writing & ‘rithmatic,”, you are at an enormous disadvantage. But in the 21st century we also need a deep understanding of technology. Millennials get a lot of attention for their ability to easily navigate social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. But ask those same Millennials how to code in HTML, what RAM means, or how to use a spreadsheet program, and you’ll probably be met with more with blank stares than good answers. Our schools should be focusing more on fostering a deep understanding of technology, along with better literacy and numeracy skills.
The second and third points are distinctly different, but closely related. Field knowledge comprises knowledge and skills that are A) gained through experience and B) necessary to be effective in a job. If you want to be effective and promotable in your job, you need to know the domain-specific content knowledge. Extremely helpful is a friendly network: a group of people who are available, capable of helping, and genuinely concerned with your success. If you want to navigate the complexity of work, it helps to have a mentor and a system of social support to assist you in gaining skills and experience. This, of course, is partially what college is supposed to be for and why it is so important we make college more affordable and accessible.
But there are other things we could do to improve Millennials’ likelihood of being prepared for higher-skilled jobs. For one thing, we could reform internship laws to require they be paid. That way, all students and young people, not just those who come from privileged backgrounds, could afford to gain field experience while in college and at the same time build their personal friendly networks. We could also bring back trade schools.
Finally, there’s the most important skill needed by any Millennial aspiring to succeed, and it happens to be the skill that school curricula are most likely to lack. That skill is fortitude.
As an educator, I can tell you it’s not that hard to see which students are going to improve and which ones are more likely to fall through the cracks. And it doesn’t have much to do with their intelligence or their initial test scores. It’s the student who never says “it’s too hard” or “I don’t want to.” It’s the student who doesn’t complain that doing work “isn’t fair.” The students with fortitude, the students who do the work – those are the kids who eventually master the material. The same is true in life beyond school.
Alas, fortitude isn’t something that comes naturally to most people. It needs to be – and can be — encouraged, fostered, taught. Teachers are encouraged to cultivate a ‘growth mindset’ in their students, with the idea that hard work will lead to results, and intelligence and talent are not fixed at birth. But we need to do so much more if we are to produce young people who are ready to take on the incredible challenges of today’s work environment. If you want to survive today, you need to be ready to adapt to anything. That takes a strong foundation, a network of support, and experience to draw on. It takes the ability to keep trying after failure, to get up after a fall. And more than anything it takes plain hard work. If Millennials and future generations are to succeed, we need to develop specific initiatives to teach the value of staying with projects to completion, putting in the work, establishing good habits, and demonstrating the rewards of fortitude.