A shared challenge for our higher education institutions and employers is the large number of students graduating high school unprepared for success in college and the workforce. It leads to lower-than-acceptable college completion rates, particularly for our most disadvantaged youth, and a broken workforce pipeline that threatens economic growth and opportunity.
The lack of skilled workers to fill open positions is a growing concern for our economy. The talent search firm Korn Ferry has estimated that the U.S. could face a deficit of 6.5 million highly skilled workers by 2030, and the skills gap could cost the country $1.75 trillion in revenue by that same year. More important, our failure to better connect k-12 education to college and workforce success translates into lost opportunities for students. Put simply, we need to do more to help young people seize the many excellent opportunities our economy creates.
A proposal we have introduced and are championing in Massachusetts aims to do just that. House Bill 567 would expand opportunities for high school students to earn industry-recognized credentials (IRCs) that data confirm are of high employment value. The proposal will fuel a diverse, highly skilled workforce pipeline that is the engine of growth and prosperity and provides students with opportunities for upward mobility.
Many students in our vocational technical schools are already earning IRCs in information technology, welding, construction, healthcare and other fields. We can and should make these available to students in our traditional high schools as well. IRCs certify the student’s qualifications and competencies and are often “stackable,” meaning they can be accumulated over time to build the student’s qualifications to pursue a career pathway or another postsecondary credential. Some IRCs also earn the student college credit.
For students going directly into the workforce from high school and for those who enter but never complete college, credentials can be the difference between low-wage positions and better paying jobs that offer opportunities for growth. Earning credentials in high school can also lead to stronger preparation for higher education. Students who earn them are exposed to career pathways before entering college and deciding on a major. In Florida, students earning credentials in high school were more likely to take Advanced Placement or dual-enrollment courses and to go to college.
We heard from students at Greater Lowell Technical High School in Massachusetts who have earned multiple web development, programming and IT credentials that having those credentials will help them secure the higher paying jobs they need to help them afford their college education and in the fields they plan to ultimately pursue.
Our legislative proposal would require the state Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development to provide the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education with an annual list of high-need occupations that require an industry-recognized credential, ranked by employment value. The top 20% of the list will be credentials that lead to occupations with annual wages at 70% of average annual wages in the Commonwealth. The idea is to ensure we’re sending the right signals to schools and students about where the opportunities lie. The district would get a financial award for each student who earns a credential that has high employment value, is recognized by higher education institutions and addresses regional workforce demands identified by the local MassHire Workforce Board. To ensure that all districts have equal opportunity to participate, the bill includes start-up funding for implementation to encourage less well-resourced districts to get the programs up and running. The funds can support teacher training or cover assessment costs or equipment needs.
This proposal dovetails and complements several state and regional initiatives already underway, including the New England Board of Higher Education’s High Value Credentials for New England initiative launched last summer that is identifying high-value credentials in key growth industries and making that information more easily accessible to the public. The ultimate goal is to enable students to make informed decisions about their course of study and future employment opportunities.
Several other states have adopted similar incentive strategies or integrate credentials into the school curriculum and career preparation activities like work-based learning and internships. In Ohio, students can earn industry-recognized credentials in one of 13 career fields with a choice of more than 250 in-demand credentials. Students in any district can sign up for an industry-recognized credential course. Florida, Wisconsin and Louisiana provide a financial incentive such as the one we propose. Students enrolled in the program in Florida demonstrated higher GPAs, graduation rates and postsecondary enrollment rates.
Massachusetts can provide these important opportunities to students in our traditional and comprehensive high schools by providing the right incentives to our schools. It is an important step in addressing our urgent need for a highly skilled workforce and ensuring our education system is creating pathways to economic opportunity and success.
Jeffrey Roy is a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives and chairs the Joint Committee on Higher Education and the Legislature’s Manufacturing Caucus. Edward Lambert Jr. is executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education.