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Some changes are helping high school students prepare for work

The phone rang at 3 a.m., an unnerving noise at a bad news hour. It wasn't life and death, but it was an emergency just the same. A 22-year-old man enrolled in a Vineland, N.J., program where dropouts can earn high school diplomas while receiving vocational training had a question:

YESPhilly students April Bryant, 21, and Robert Goodson, 18, study a software program.
YESPhilly students April Bryant, 21, and Robert Goodson, 18, study a software program.Read more

The phone rang at 3 a.m., an unnerving noise at a bad news hour.

It wasn't life and death, but it was an emergency just the same. A 22-year-old man enrolled in a Vineland, N.J., program where dropouts can earn high school diplomas while receiving vocational training had a question:

Should he move out of his parents' house and move in with his girlfriend?

Sam Mercado, who helps run a local version of YouthBuild, a nationally lauded program helping dropouts get diplomas and find jobs, spent 90 minutes on the line with the caller. Mercado helped him see that the food, rent, and other costs he would have to pay with a girlfriend would swamp him financially and jeopardize the fragile framework he was building toward a future.

The young man remained home, got his diploma, and currently works in plumbing.

That's a rough version of success in hard-times America.

Throughout the country, young people of the millennial generation (ages 18 to 34) face unprecedented problems finding work.

Employers these days - even in blue-collar enterprises - prefer to hire those with certificates or degrees. Applicants with only high school degrees are among the worst off; just three out of 10 can expect to make $35,000 a year or more in their lifetimes, predicts Georgetown University economist Jeff Strohl.

So what's being done to help?

The solutions start with education - specifically, work-linked education, the teaching of particular skills to do a particular job, experts say.

The mainstream American approach to education is obsolete, many say. Along with the three Rs, educators are looking to create courses in high school and college that link young people more directly to work.

YouthBuild is an example. Low-income people ages 16 to 24 work full-time for up to two years toward their GEDs or high school diplomas while learning job skills by building affordable housing in their communities.

YouthBuild programs operate in Philadelphia and Camden, as well as in Vineland, where one is part of Aspira Inc. of New Jersey.

Aspira students partner with the Cumberland County Technical Education Center and receive certificates in carpentry, electronics, plumbing, and other areas, Mercado said.

He added that the program fosters a "no-pressure" situation that puts students at ease. And, Mercado likes to think, his extra attention to students helps them move on to better lives.

When it comes to figuring out how to help millennials, "we're at the tipping point," said Barbara Ray, researcher with the MacArthur Foundation's Network on Transitions to Adulthood. "We've realized the problem and are finding alternative pathways. The ball's starting to roll in the right direction."

Though there are programs especially to help those with only high school degrees, there aren't nearly enough to move an entire generation into a comfortable adulthood of family-sustaining wages.

Many look to Europe for answers. There, nations like Germany don't preach the American "college for all" mantra, according to a 2011 report by the Harvard Graduate School of Education called "Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century."

Europeans place greater emphasis on vocational education, which was allowed to wither in much of the United States since the 1980s.

In Europe after grade 10, between 40 percent and 70 percent of students move into a system that combines schoolwork with apprenticeship or training with a company, the Harvard report says. It could be plumbing, IT, office work, automotive repair - any of dozens of options.

At the end of high school, these young people emerge with the rough equivalent of a technical degree from an American community college, according to the report. They're ready for work.

In countries like Germany and Switzerland, employers take a big role in defining qualifications for work-based learning as well as spending money on students, the report states. Employer thinking is simple: The best way to get a highly qualified workforce is to invest in workers.

Some of those ideas have emigrated to America, where most students are on academic rather than vocational tracks.

Career and technical education programs are being developed to create clearer linkages between what students learn and what employers need. Fewer young people drop out of school when they can see a direct line between what they're studying and a paycheck, studies show.

Among the challenges for those working with young adults is getting dropouts back into school.

YESPhilly has garnered praise from national experts because it gives counseling support as well as media-arts training to help dropouts get a high school degree.

"We try to build students up in enough different ways that they get a broader sense of what's possible in the world," executive director Taylor Frome said. But she added a word of caution.

"One of the big challenges I run into in this work is the fantasy level of success that people express, which is just not happening." The way ahead, she added, is arduous. But that doesn't preclude people from striving.

Other local programs earning national notice for securing training and employment for young people include Philadelphia Works Inc. and the Philadelphia Youth Network, which work with dropouts and high school graduates.

"I'm optimistic that if young people are willing to take the next step" toward acquiring postsecondary certificates and burnishing skills, they will be successful, said Meg Shope Koppel, a senior vice president with Philadelphia Works.

Philadelphia Works has placed young people in factory and service jobs at Kraft Foods Inc., Burlington Coat Factory, and Sav-A-Lot grocery stores, among others.

Philadelphia Youth Network, for its part, has placed young people in 6,800 summer internships with Citizens Bank, Independence Blue Cross, and other local companies. All of that is aimed at teaching students what employers expect.

Lately, the so-called career academy movement has been collecting accolades and is being called a "model" of 21st-century career and technical education by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. A career academy is a school within a school that combines an academic curriculum with an occupational theme through career and technical courses.

Eight years after graduation, career academy graduates earned an average of 11 percent more money than students who applied to the academies but did not enroll, according to the Harvard report.

The nation's first career academy was in North Philadelphia at Thomas Edison High School in 1969. There are now 19 career academies in Philadelphia, with students learning fields such as tourism, and hotel and restaurant management. They end up graduating from high school with skills employers value.

Harvard also praises Project Lead the Way, a national program that introduces high school students to engineering. The program operates in about 12 high schools in Philadelphia, Montgomery, Delaware, Burlington, Camden, and Cumberland Counties.

Other national efforts like Year Up are gaining attention. They offer yearlong training programs for 18-to-24-year-olds who have completed high school.

Year Up works with community colleges and provides a curriculum based on what students will find in the real world. Courses include business communications, financial operations, and computer applications. Students are matched with corporations for internships.

Year Up also teaches "soft skills." Students take courses that literally teach them how to shake hands with a boss, how to show up on time for work, and how to speak in an office setting.

Not yet in the Philadelphia area - although it's planning to team with a major corporation here - Year Up expects to serve 10,000 young people nationwide by 2012, said Kailey Cartwright, deputy chief of staff.

It's just a drop in the bucket, she said. "But we now understand what works," Cartwright added. "Our current college system doesn't [work]. You get a degree but wind up in a [high school labor market] job you could have had before college. We believe approaches like ours are the way forward."

Unusual efforts to help young people abound.

There's the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe program, in which high school dropouts live on a military base for six months, earning their GEDs.

In Georgia, a wire and cable manufacturer called Southwire has set up an in-factory school for dropouts that teaches them academics and manufacturing.

In Florida, there are proposals to lower the college tuition of students who major in subjects such as science, engineering, and medicine, which lead to in-demand jobs.

"We just have to try stuff," said Dan Bloom, policy director at MDRC, a nonprofit education and social policy research organization. "Test it rigorously and figure how to replicate it. I don't know any other way to change things."

Though high school graduates face more acute problems, even colleges need to do better to prepare their students for today's changed labor market, says Carl Van Horn, director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University.

A college degree itself is no ticket to success. About 50 percent of college graduates are working in jobs that don't require a bachelor's degree, according to economist Paul Harrington of Drexel University.

Students in four-year colleges, for example, don't give sufficient thought to how their majors connect to jobs in the real world, he said.

"All students need to know things like how to use an Excel spreadsheet. No one is telling them that," Van Horn said. "Colleges have a moral responsibility to educate students about job prospects, but few offer anything other than advice to start a job search six weeks before graduation."

To help, some community colleges are eliminating general-education requirements, allowing students to take only the courses that connect directly with a job. "It's controversial," because it knocks out some liberal arts courses, said Nicole Smith, education economist with the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. "But students graduate ready for work and minimize their costs."

While much has been done to help millennials, Van Horn cautions about being too optimistic:

"These positive examples should be put in context," he said. "Understand that these programs to help young people are bright lights in a dark environment.

"Overall, we're not doing a good enough job. I'd say we're getting a C grade right now. We need to move up."


Betsy Sappington and Khalib Artis discuss the struggle to find jobs: