Can America Follow Nevada's Lead in Giving Students Recession-Proof Job Skills?

Nevada was the fastest growing state for decades. Jobs were plentiful, housing affordable and taxes low. Tourists streamed to the entertainment capital of the United States. But things changed. Gaming spread throughout the country. Nevada weathered two major economic slowdowns since the start of the millennium, forcing layoffs in our massive tourism industry. Gov. Brian Sandoval, who just termed out of office, vowed the state would never be so crippled like this again by an economic downturn. His lever was a massive reinvention of career education, to prepare students for the working world— and for college. America should pay attention, because as a nation, we’re woefully behind in preparing our children for the realities of a changing economy. As a new report from the education group Chiefs for Change shows, our competitor nations can see what’s coming. That’s why the majority of students in countries such as Austria, Germany, Finland and Switzerland take a concentrated, coherent series of career and technical education (CTE) courses that prepare them for a particular career field. In the United States, only about 6 percent do. Even in a time of low unemployment, the mismatch between jobs and skills hurts students, who end up job-insecure. It hurts businesses, and it hurts our economy. And it puts students from low-income families in particular jeopardy. These are among the reasons Chiefs for Change is calling on the nation to follow our lead and modernize CTE. A tepid approach to CTE is one of the reasons America now ranks ninth in the world in our workers’ preparedness for an increasingly automated workplace. In large part, America has been slow to embrace CTE because it still suffers from a reputation as an alternative for kids without academic smarts. But Nevada’s experience demonstrates the opposite: Strong CTE can prepare students for the realities of work while engaging them in college-preparatory courses. Our experience offers lessons for the country. Our first step was recognizing the mismatch between schools and jobs. Half of Nevada’s jobs now are “middle-skilled,” requiring more than a high school diploma, less than a college degree and some form of postsecondary training or industry certification. Economists forecast even greater shifts in the workforce, demanding ever more skills. In Nevada, we worked to raise academic standards and to help students get the skills they would need. Our legislature passed a law that ordered ambitious new high school graduation requirements, establishing a College and Career Ready High School Diploma. Nevada became one of 10 states to receive a significant J.P. Morgan Chase New Skills for Youth grant to help create and sustain more relevant and effective career pathways for students beginning in middle and high school. These pathways lead students directly to industry-recognized certifications, registered apprenticeships and two- and four-year degrees in high-skill, high-wage, in-demand industries. This statewide initiative, LifeWorks, supports Nevada’s youth in planning for life beyond high school including exploring a career pathway that prepares them for success and addresses our state’s need for more skilled workers in Nevada. My hope is that these efforts mean so much to Nevadans, and have such potential to help students nationwide, that they’ll survive and grow despite changes in state leadership and even partisan differences. In Nevada, our efforts are paying off. In spring 2019, we project that nearly 6,900 Nevada seniors will graduate with new College and Career Readiness diplomas that demonstrate students’ preparation for new types of success. Quran Brossard Jr. graduated with his CTE Certificate of Skill Attainment in 2018. Like many students in Nevada, he was not sure that college was right for him. He was enrolled in the Manufacturing CTE program at Desert Rose Tech Center in North Las Vegas. Quran excelled in his courses and earned a coveted spot in the Tesla Manufacturing Development program. He trained on automated machinery like those in the Tesla Gigafactory near Sparks, Nevada. [pullquote position="left"]Upon graduation, Quran went to work at Tesla full-time. CTE students like Quran represent the change we’ve sought, with higher grade-point averages and lower college debt. LifeWorks students’ high school graduation rate has risen by 6 points, and now is 10 points higher than for all students. In the short term, these achievements mean that more students are finding footholds on the pathways to economic and social mobility. They’re starting their careers earlier and more intentionally, building the foundation for lifelong financial stability, minimizing debt and enriching both their professional and intellectual lives. In the long term, LifeWorks is contributing to a more robust Nevada economy that’s attractive to businesses around the world, in part because we can now say Nevada is home to some of the most competent professionals in the nation. Today’s hot economy and low unemployment should lull no one into complacency. We learned from the downturns in the past to invest in our children’s competitiveness and prosperity. America should do the same.
Steve Canavero stepped down as Nevada state superintendent of public instruction in 2019. He is a member of Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan network of state and district education chiefs.

Join the Movement