A Publication of WTVP

Recently, a group of manufacturers from around the state gathered at ICC to lay the foundation for the creation of a green energy course curriculum for Illinois high schools. Approximately 24 business and manufacturing representatives from around the state participated.

The first day of the two-day format provided an opportunity for the manufacturing community to talk about the goals and objectives they felt were important for the course to include. The format encouraged open dialogue, and many of the industry representatives expressed frustration with the fact that young people are not entering the workforce with the skills they need to be successful. One union training coordinator from the Champaign area remarked that many of the individuals seeking entrance into their programs can’t read a tape measure. Others in the room echoed the lack of critical thinking skills and a general concern over the lack of “soft skills” needed for success in the workplace.

As a former small business owner, I understood their concerns and frustrations. As an educator, I did my best to explain why our schools are struggling with these issues. For example, I explained to the union training coordinator that the last time many students in Illinois have been required to read a tape measure was when it appeared on a standardized test in elementary school. Additionally, high schools are being mandated to teach more “core curriculum” in an effort to address No Child Left Behind and other mandates that have come to serve as the measuring stick for school success. These increased core requirements make it more difficult for students to take elective courses.

Career and Tech Ed (CTE, or vocational to most of us in the older crowd) courses help teach workplace skills and appeal to students who may not necessarily succeed in a traditional classroom. In these classes, the “Why do I need to know this?” question is easily answered through practical, hands-on examples. Unfortunately, these elective CTE courses continue to lose turf as students are required to take more mandated core curriculum courses and schools address budgetary concerns. Lost in all of this is the fact that “core concepts” are taught and reinforced in CTE programs.

My question to the business community is: How is the educational system working for you? I recently attended a meeting on “21st Century Skills”—a national initiative that is gaining some traction in Illinois. While I would argue the “21st Century Skills” promoted have been valuable far longer than the last decade, I do applaud the desire of this group to address some of the workplace readiness concerns mentioned above. Unfortunately, the gathering included many educators (a number of them from higher education), but few business representatives.

I encourage you to get involved with education at the policy level. Your voice is very important to the debates taking place now about the role of schools. These conversations are taking place at the local, state and national levels. These conversations are taking place with local school boards, the state board of education and at the legislative level. Our schools are filled with great people who desire the best for their students and want to prepare them for life after high school. The system has them geared towards teaching state standards, as it is how their success is measured (via standardized testing). Talk to educational leaders about the challenges they are facing and work collectively to help shape the direction we will take going forward. Business and industry involvement and leadership should help to address some of these concerns for preparing our students to be ready for the workforce.

In my November article, I promised to highlight examples of schools and the business community working together to create authentic learning opportunities for students. One such example in many schools in the Tri-County Area is “Welcome to the Real World,” a program through the University of Illinois extension office that is made possible by the help of volunteers.

This project gives high school students the opportunity to function in a simulated, real-world environment. Students pay bills, bank, purchase vehicles, shop for groceries, seek entertainment and even experience unexpected expenses. It is fun to watch their expressions when they receive their “paychecks” after the taxes have been taken out. Not surprisingly, many of the students run out of money. Most of the students go home with a renewed appreciation for what their parents experience in keeping a household budget together. Business and civic leaders pitch in to work at these tables and bring an authenticity to the event. If you have not already done so, I would encourage you to try to assist with this type of event. iBi