The importance of work experience

Education isn’t cutting it anymore in the job market.

Eric Best

In Iowa last week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan unveiled President Barack Obama’s administration’s new vocational education plan. The president proposes to revise the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act by investing an additional $1 billion to increase partnerships between high schools, colleges and employers, with the goal of directing students toward high-need industries such as engineering and health care.

In many Western European nations, vocational, hands-on methods of teaching are implemented with high school or college-aged students, ages 16 to 19 usually, in order to give them work experience along with their education. For example, if a student is planning on working in business, the student spends three days in the classroom learning the skills necessary to work two days a week in a local business or in a specific industry, applying that knowledge directly. College classes and vocational experience are paired together to give students both sides of their education and gives them a glimpse at the real world of the job market — its gives them work experience, something they might not have if they weren’t going to school, while giving them an education.

But is a program like this necessary in the United States? Students who simply graduate from high school have a 22 percent unemployment rate but often have early work experience. Other students who go straight to a four-year degree at a liberal arts college often lack relevant work experience because they are busy with their education. These students are often led to believe they will get a job right after graduating. Students are quite confident on this point — in one study, half of male and 68 percent of female high school students believed that with a four-year degree, they would have a nice, professional job by the time they were 30 years old. Yet, among college graduates with a four-year degree, only two of three will find employment related to their field of study. It is often a lack of relevant work experience and knowledge that stands between college grads and a career in their field. Thus, it seems an educational model that implements a mixture of work experience and theoretical education is ideal for finding a career.

Yet, the idea of a “vocational education” is pejorative in the United States. Often, it is incorrectly associated with the working class, high school or college dropouts or even people with special needs, yet most high school students take at least some vocational courses; 80 percent of high school students take at least one occupationally specific vocational course, and one in eight traditional academic students takes even more vocational courses than vocational students do.

At the University of Minnesota, some departments are seeing that work experience is key to getting a job after graduation and having a more in-depth education and are trying to make vocational experience available for course requirements. In the English department, the department of my major, there are classes that get students working for “Ivory Tower,” the University’s literary magazine. The course gives English students hands-on experience in the publishing industry — a huge local resource, with many prominent companies like Graywolf Press, who published the 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner for Poetry. Taking advantage of local resources and industries is crucial, and not doing so is a waste of a great opportunity to change a student’s education. The University needs to implement classes with a more vocational focus, especially in departments where there is a heavy emphasis on classroom, online and textbook-based learning, without acknowledging the real-world experience necessary for a career in that field.

The rise of internships mirrors the trend of a growing importance of work experience before students find a job or at least a paid position. Internships are a prime example of a way students are taking it upon themselves to pair their education with hands-on training, and ideally most students who choose to do internships also get college credit. The European model is similar to having an internship, but students receive assistance or placement with where they work or what position they will have.

Most students — more than 55 percent — cite better job placement or a higher wage as their main reasons for why they attend higher education. As college students, we are led to believe thatan education alone will launch us into a career, despite the fact that with a lack of job training or experience, many of us will not see a career at the end of graduation or even graduate school. As students, we hear the rhetoric of the real world as something which we aren’t a part of, but we need to start acting as if we are by taking our education as one part of an extended plan toward the career we want, with other factors, such as other jobs, studying abroad or internships, in between.

It is beneficial for colleges that their students have a high degree of job placement as these numbers are published each year for students.  Therefore, colleges should be invested in a complete education that prepares students for a career. We need to take advantage of local resources such as businesses, markets and community leaders to act as a bridge to potential job placement, as well as prime opportunities to network. As students, we must not pretend like we are not yet part of the real world.


Eric Best welcomes comments at [email protected]