Dropping out is typically triggered by innumerable events, choices and experiences over years, so there is no magic remedy. Nonetheless, supportive adult relationships and a compelling answer to the question “Why stay in?” are key.
I have dedicated my professional life to developing programs to help educators help students plan their learning and career journeys. I believe the ultimate goal of education is to prepare students for successful lives beyond school. While adult life is much more than work, most of us spend more time on the job than anything other than sleeping for most of our lives. As adults, we know our career choices profoundly impact every aspect of our lives. Yet, we graduate students unprepared to make employment choices.
Roughly 1 in 2 young people, from dropouts to those with degrees, fail to “launch” smoothly from school to work. Many begin their careers in low wage jobs unrelated to their studies and interests, unsure how, or if, they will ever land a “good” job. “Many young people find out who they are and where they belong by bouncing off things (experiences) for several years until they eventually commit or settle.”  Their prospects for early student loan repayment (average $30,000), buying a car, home, and building a life and family may seem bleak to them, and to their parents.
Given the exodus of high-end “boomer” talent already underway, ensuring young people launch successfully from school to good jobs is critical. Today’s school leavers will carry the primary burden of taxation for the next 40 years. We all need them to be successful. Young people in good jobs are happier, healthier, and more productive, they pay higher taxes, and they contribute more to their families and communities. Those that lose their early adult years drifting between underemployment and unemployment may never recover lost ground. Rather than contributing to prosperity for all, they diminish it for all. From every perspective, dropouts and failed launches are simply too costly in human and economic terms to tolerate.
Young people are in school from Kindergarten until they enter the workforce. Preparing them to make good choices as they enter and navigate the complex, constantly changing maze that is today’s labour market isn’t in the curriculum. Most educators feel unprepared and unequipped to help students prepare for the working world. So, whose job is it?
To answer this question, I helped organize Thoughtexchanges at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Pathways to Prosperity Conference in March, 2013, the National Career Development Conference in July, 2013 and The Association of Career and Technical Educators’ CareerTech Vision 2013. Over 500 eminent education, government, business, community and career leaders reflected for two weeks – one month prior to each conference – then submitted their ideas. They then had two weeks to read others’ responses and vote for the ideas they considered best of all. The results were shared at the conferences.
Of the hundreds of ideas generated, the following rose to the top:
- Educators and employers must collaborate to provide real-world, work- and project-based learning (learning by doing) opportunities for students.
- Career and labour market information and guidance provision must be enhanced so students can make informed decisions based on their interests and their employment prospects.
- All learning pathways to in-demand careers deserve priority and respect. The “university for all” mentality does a disservice to many students and yields too few graduates with the skills and experience employers need.
- Preparing students to transition from school to success requires collaboration among educators, parents, employers, and community agencies. It’s everyone’s job!
Like most jobs, this one requires training and tools. I believe the following, all of which are available, are essential:
- Engaging, experiential career learning programs and activities for teachers for students in Kindergarten, primary, middle, secondary, and post-secondary schools.
- Comprehensive and current online career, learning and labour market information for students, teachers, and parents.
- Online graduation planning systems linked to Student Information Systems to enable students, with help from teachers and parents, to choose learning pathways based on informed career goals.
- Online systems that safely connect students and employers, mediated by educators and parents, for experiential learning opportunities such as mentoring, coaching, workplace tours, classroom speakers, job shadowing, co-op placements, internships, apprenticeships, volunteering, community service, and part-time or summer jobs.
- Training for students, teachers, parents, employers and community agencies so all can effectively help students stay in school and prepare to transition from school to success.
To illustrate, here’s a true story from North Carolina, where the “tools” above are in place. Interestingly, they are from Canada.
A Grade 9 student hated school. He seldom completed assignments and was disruptive in class. The only thing he looked forward to each day was getting to his uncle’s garage to work on motors. He was a magician at this! He planned to drop out of school on his 16th birthday (in 3 months) and work on his passion full-time.
Then he received a message in his ePortfolio from John Deere saying “You might be the kind of person we are looking for. Would you like to come and see our facilities and meet some of our people?” When he got there his eyes lit up. Surrounded by tractors, lawn mowers, and off-road vehicles, this looked like heaven to him.
John Deere told him if he dropped out of school they wouldn’t consider hiring him. They said he needed to do well in his academics, particularly Math and Science, and work on his people skills and character. They didn’t promise him a job, but they offered him a mentor and the possibility of experiential learning (job-shadowing, internships, part-time job).
He was different person in school the next day. He now saw high school as a bridge he wanted to cross. His teachers and parents couldn’t believe his transformation. When he graduated with above average marks, John Deere paid his tuition for a 2-year community college small engine repair course. When he finished the course they hired him at $50,000, loan-free.
John Deere found this student because he had expressed his passion for and experience with motor repair in his ePortfolio. They found him, and he found a compelling reason to stay in school, and new supporting relationships with adults beyond school or home. It takes a community.
This can happen with any student, whether at-risk of dropping out or on the honour roll, when new connections between school and the “real world” occur and students with dreams meet employers seeking talented young candidates.
 Career Crafting the Decade after High School, Cathy Campbell and Peggy Dutton, CERIC 2015.
 Thoughtexchange (https://thoughtexchange.com/) is a British Columbia-based company that has developed a unique group inquiry software platform used by many school districts across Canada and the United States.