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Michigan’s economy has bounced back in a big way from the “Lost Decade” that saw both General Motors and Chrysler declare bankruptcy while hundreds of thousands of Michiganians lost their jobs.

The state’s unemployment rate is the lowest it’s been since the dot-com boom, and a diversifying economy is projected to create more than 800,000 health care, manufacturing and information technology jobs.

There’s only one problem — our students aren’t graduating with the skills they need to fill these positions.

As in much of the United States, somewhere along the line we lost our way in K-12 education. Once the norm became going to a four-year college or university, getting a bachelor’s degree, and then trying to find a job, the public school system stopped thinking about preparing kids for good careers right out of high school — even though that’s where much of today’s job growth is now happening. This approach needs to change.

Many of the most in-demand jobs don’t require an expensive four-year degree, but do require applicants to have very specific technical skills and experiences not available in most high school courses. Career Readiness courses — which go well beyond the traditional career and technical education classes older readers will remember — can provide students with these qualifications and put them on a path that leads to a high-paying, lifelong career.

For some students, there is a very clear link between a core academic course and an ensuing career. A future chemical engineer will probably enjoy high school chemistry classes. But for the students who struggle with or are uninterested in these subjects, connecting the dots between education and career can be difficult. As every teacher has heard many times: “When will I ever use this?”

Career Readiness courses can help fill those gaps, make school more relevant, and give students the skills they actually need to succeed in life after high school.

Plus, the more aware students are of their options, the less likely they are to overspend on next steps. Students interested in skilled trades may not need a college degree for what they want to do. And for college-bound students, going into post-secondary school with an end goal in mind can prevent them from changing majors and digging even deeper into college debt.

But being career ready is about much more than graduating from high school, enrolling in college or a trade program and taking a set of industry-specific classes. It’s also about being prepared for what comes after that: applying to and eventually being offered a job. Some Career Readiness courses, like one that I teach, address this.

These courses start off going over what most high school students learn from a guidance counselor — information on The Common Application, The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FASFA), etc. Building upon that, they provide further insight into different fields, what kind of education/training each require, and help students create a clear plan of what to do once they get their diploma. They don’t stop there, though, also showing students things like how to build a resume or interview well. As a result, students will more easily bridge the gap first between high school and college/trade school, and then between college/trade school and the workforce.

Our K-12 education needs a shift in mindset, one that focuses not on getting students into college but preparing them for a successful career, whether that career will require a four-year degree or technical training. This is particularly true in Michigan, where we have jobs that need to be filled but no skilled workers to fill them.

Patrick W. Ocharzak teaches career readiness at K12’s Michigan Great Lakes Virtual Academy.

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