Schools need to train career-ready students for 21st-century jobs

A decade from now, today’s third-graders could start their working careers. Is our educational system built to prepare them for the careers that will exist when they enter the workforce? As celebrate Global Entrepreneurship Week (Nov. 13-19), are we doing enough in Pennsylvania to encourage young minds to follow through with their innovative ideas?

The unfortunate reality is that America’s public schools largely are designed solely to prepare students to graduate from high school instead of preparing them for careers of the future. Our students are stuck in the same old desks, learning the same thing at the same time, instead of being pushed to think, grow, create and explore.

Schools have the most impact when students are exposed to the demands and possibilities of the real world so they can see what it takes to succeed. It doesn’t matter whether they intend to immediately enter the workforce, follow a path of entrepreneurship, serve in the military or pursue higher education — they need to learn how to be problem-solvers, how to collaborate and how to stay current with the rapid pace of advancing technology.

These educational and technological skills aren’t important just in the classroom — they’re crucial to developing an entrepreneurial spirit. In essence, entrepreneurship is more a way of thinking than it is a job title. People need to be creative when solving problems and look broadly for potential solutions. They need to work with others and to bring together the best minds around them. These are critical skills to learn. They spur innovation, and that leads to economic growth and development. For more than 35 years, the Ben Franklin Technology PArtnership has invested in innovation, with a resulting impact of almost $24 billion on Pennsylvania’s economy. Imagine how much we can expand that growth in communities around the state if we educate our students on how to get there. Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Central & Northern PA has provided startup funding and business support services to tech-based startups and small manufacturers located in Pennsylvania.

The most critical need to reach that point in today’s educational environment is to encourage students to think creatively and collaboratively. Technology has been a great tool to further a student’s ability to imagine solutions by connecting them to peers with various perspectives who are located in communities outside of their own.

Entrepreneurs come in a variety of forms. For some, there may be an “aha” experience — after struggling over a problem or a business concept for a while, this entrepreneur has a moment of clarity and then pursues that singular solution. Others can see an opportunity and a market, and move from step one to step 50 to bring that idea to life. Those entrepreneurs tend to develop more successful companies in the long term.

Today’s schools need to focus on fostering and nurturing that way of thinking. Our educational system needs to change.

Certainly, more schools are beginning to understand the benefits of integrating technology into their classrooms to expand their offerings and make learning more flexible. Those forward-thinking schools bring outside experts to students through virtual visits, exposing them to new career possibilities and allowing them to probe subjects more deeply online than they can during in a 45-minute class. Some allow students to take courses online and use their afternoons for job shadowing and career exploration. There also are projects, such as the Real World Design Challenge, in which students work together as a team to use engineering software and design a concept that might solve a real-world problem. That’s the type of hands-on learning our students need to thrive in the jobs of today — and tomorrow.

Students need these opportunities to stretch their brains and their horizons. Our educational system needs to retool its approach so it can expose kids to things they didn’t know existed to spark a passion, a purpose and a path for the future. Students fortunate enough to experience this type of learning environment might very well end up brainstorming with other entrepreneurs and professionals over the best ways to launch a new product or company.

Brian Slawin is the northwest regional director and portfolio manager for the Ben Franklin Technology PArtners, an initiative of the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development providing capital, mentoring, network and support for technology startups and small manufacturers in central and northern Pennsylvania. Dr. Maurice “Reese” Flurie is the CEO of Commonwealth Charter Academy, a K-12 Pennsylvania public cyber charter school.