How Well is Louisiana Preparing Students for Careers?
For years, business and industry have complained that high school graduates aren’t arriving to the workplace prepared with basic skills needed for entry-level jobs. That may explain why unemployment among 16-24-year-olds has historically been higher than older workers. According to the Economic Policy Institute, in early 2019, the unemployment rate for workers ages 16–24 (8.4%) was three times as high as for workers ages 25 and up (2.8%).
In response, lawmakers and education leaders around the country initiated several reforms over the past two decades, including but not limited to high school redesign, career counseling, career, and technical education, opportunities to earn industry-based certifications, special-purpose high schools, summer programming, and work-based experiences like job shadowing, internships, and apprenticeships. These efforts dramatically changed course offerings in high schools, and states made significant investments in new programming, equipment, instructor training and certification, and partnerships with post-secondary education institutions and local employers.
In Louisiana, the state legislature enacted a career diploma option in 2009, which floundered until the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education enacted regulations known as the Jump Start program in 2014 to authorize specific high school career training pathways aligned to state and regional workforce needs. Prior to Jump Start, fewer than two percent of students graduated with a career diploma; now one in five students graduate with a career diploma and Jump Start credentials. The number of industry credentials has also grown from 20,000 in 2015 to over 60,000. School leaders and advocates for the program attribute the growth to accountability incentives and Supplemental Course Allocation funding within the state’s K-12 education funding formula, which now stands at about $18 million and is proposed to increase to over $21 million in FY23.
Last year, the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) announced plans to further enhance the impact of career readiness training in high school through Fast Forward, described as the next generation of Jump Start which would allow students to pursue an associate’s degree or complete an apprenticeship by the time they graduate.
This may seem like a resounding success here in our home state, a proven program ready to be taken to the next level. The only problem is that we really don’t know how many of these credentialed high school graduates have actually been hired in their field of training and remain employed. We don’t know how many are making a living wage or if they’ve been promoted and have grown within their chosen career field. Those would be better indicators of whether the “jump start” we’ve given them has actually made a positive difference in their overall career readiness.
For the past few years, the Louisiana Legislature has considered bills and commissioned reports aimed at requiring the LDOE and the Louisiana Workforce Commission to share information that will allow these questions to be answered. This year, lawmakers will consider House Bill 470, which will require the two agencies to produce and share the data with the state’s Industry-Based Certification Council, which signs off on the state’s high school Jump Start credentialing programs. The legislature and BESE would be wise to base any future policy revisions, program enhancements, and appropriations on outcome data showing exactly where the state is serving our high school graduates well and where improvements need to be made.