For years, lack of detailed data correlating high school skills and experiences with workforce outcomes left policy advisors claiming the generic label ‘college and career readiness skills’ applied equally well to students’ readiness for university and workplace opportunities, often leaving students, families, and schools with a ‘one size fits all’ approach to measuring success upon graduation. Unfortunately, this contributed to a substantial portion of graduates, the so-called ‘forgotten half’ who did not enroll in college1, who were unprepared to take advantage of other ‘pathways to prosperity.’2 Since 2010, however, states have begun defining these terms in ways that acknowledge both the cross-cutting, 21st Century Skills sought by both colleges and employers3, as well as skills more specifically needed for graduates to take advantage of workforce opportunities.4

This win-win shift benefits students on both the college and career fronts. Research shows when students see connections between academic tasks and their future goals, they are more likely to put forth persistent effort and to demonstrate academic behaviors that support school success.5 Even in terms of college success, early career awareness yields major benefits for students. Research by ACT (2012) revealed that students in the lowest score range (1-15) who select a good interest-major fit persist in their college major at the same rate as their peers in the highest scoring range (33-36) with a poor interest-major fit6.

In addition to an increasing pulling mechanism from industry, students themselves have asserted the importance of guidance on career pathway options, and the connections between pathways of interest and what they are learning in middle and high school. A recent survey involving youth from 19 countries found that young people feel unprepared for the ‘real-world’ and frequently share their concern for a lack of preparedness for what they will face after formal education, with 83% of responding youth conveying their belief that learning skills to help them in their future career would improve their education.8 Let us also keep in mind Gallup’s 2014 finding that students who say their school is committed to building the strengths of each student, and with at least one adult they say excites them about their future, are 30 times more likely to be engaged in school.9 I think it is fair to say we need to talk to students about their future, if we want to get them excited about it.

Certainly, today’s high-tech career and technical education (CTE) programs are critical to helping meet the shared demands and goals of students and potential employers, but even for students not in CTE programs, there are ways that schools and partners can infuse opportunities and experiences to address this critical engagement opportunity. Resources like Naviance help ensure students, teachers and counselors are aware of students’ interests early, and provide opportunities to explore pathways of interest and draw connections to classes and concepts.

In addition, industry partners and non-profit organizations can team up with schools to introduce students to career possibilities through a variety of activities, as we do with schools across Maryland - from guest speaker series, career day presentations, mock interviews, job visits, and hands-on college program tours to internships and other work-based learning experiences for students, teachers, school counselors, and administrators. These experiences close the critical relationship, opportunity, and social capital gaps at the root of the current achievement and skills gaps we aim to close. Together, we can keep kids excited about school and working toward their futures.

21st Century Skills7

  • Collaboration and teamwork: Group projects and extra-curricular leadership opportunities are great ways to build these skills in working together, through technology and in person.
  • Creativity and imagination: As the internet of things in incorporated throughout our lives, opportunities in the ‘creative economy’ expand, demanding successful design thinking.
  • Critical thinking: Artificial intelligence has allowed computers and robots to take over many basic tasks and functions. Your ability to think critically, to investigate and connect ideas, will help define the importance of your role in the workforce of the future.
  • Problem solving:  To solve the problems of the future, you’ll need to get practice asking the right, challenging questions. This will open possibilities to new directions.

There are several more cross-cutting skills that will serve you well, in whatever field you pursue.

  • Flexibility and adaptability: Most fields and industries these days are experiencing one ‘disruption’ or another. Keeping up with changing demands requires resilience and persistence. Having a ‘growth mindset’ – knowing your hard work will help you get better – has been shown to be key to long-term success.
  • Global and cultural awareness: The internet has allowed us to connect instantly to friends and colleagues around the world. Working to understand and respect other cultures is vital to personal and professional success.
  • Information literacy: These days, information is abundant and often easy to access. Knowing how to use it requires practice finding and synthesizing relevant information.
  • Leadership: Coming up with great ideas is important, but helping people understand and get excited about them will determine whether they catch on. Having integrity and ‘showing the way’ will determine whether they stand the test of time.

Foundational Work Skills8

  • Applied Math: Critical thinking, mathematical reasoning, and problem-solving, including identifying errors in calculation, converting systems of measurement, and calculating areas and volumes.
  • Graphic Literacy: Reading and comprehending graphic materials to solve problems, including interpreting trends, relationships, and patterns; comparing information and trends among data sets’ and using data to make decisions.
  • Workplace Documents: Reading and comprehending written information to make decisions and solve problems, including inferring meanings of words and phrases from contexts; deciphering the meaning of acronyms, jargon, or technical content; and applying information and instructions to a new situation.

Rudy Ruiz is chief education officer for the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education, a non-profit organization that leverages support from leading employers to increase college and career awareness and readiness in schools across the state, in partnership with the state department of education.

  1. W.T. Grant Foundation Commission on Work, Family, and Citizenship. 1988. The Forgotten Half: Pathways to Success for America’s Youth and Young Families. New York, NY: William T. Grant Foundation. (Samuel Halperin, study director.)
  2. Symonds, William C., Robert Schwartz, and Ronald F. Ferguson. 2011. Pathways to prosperity: Meeting the challenge of preparing young Americans for the 21st century. Cambridge, MA: Pathways to Prosperity Project, Harvard University Graduate School of Education.
  3. Harris, B. 2015. Predicting job and academic success with watson-glaser. Retrieved from
  4. Mishkind, A. 2014. Overview: State Definitions of college and career readiness. College and Career Readiness and Success Center at American Institutes for Research.
  5. Farrington, et al. 2012. Teaching adolescents to become learners. The role of noncognitive factors in shaping school performance.
  6. ACT. 2012. Enrollment Management Trends Report.
  7. Hanover Research. 2011. A Crosswalk of 21st Century Skills (incl. the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, Tony Wagner’s Seven Survival Skills, the Metiri Group’s enGauge framework, the Iowa Core 21st Century Skills, developed by the Iowa Department of Education, the Connecticut State Department of Education and the Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills).
  8. ACT. 2017. Foundational Work Skills.
  9. Spencer-Keyse, A. J. & Warren, F. 2018. Every Child to Flourish: Understanding Global Perspectives on Improving Education. Insights from a state of the debate review & global youth survey. HundrED Research.
  10. Gallup, Inc. (2014). State of America’s schools: The path to winning again in education. Retrieved from
Rudy Ruiz
Aug. 28, 2018

by Rudy RuizMaryland Business Roundtable for Education


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