Careers & Guidance

Bridging the Relevancy Gap

By Adriano Magnifico

High schools and employers need to do a better job of preparing students for the inevitable transition to the workplace. A more comprehensive system that includes academic and partnership programming is needed for both educators and employers to forge important links and nurture transferable skill sets. These skills will make every graduating student—those going directly to college and university and those moving directly to the workplace—successful after the high school experience. But at present, these groups resemble magnificent agricultural silos on a windswept prairie, each strong and imposing but very alone and many, many miles away from each other. The divide that separates the parties represents a Relevancy Gap, a chasm of knowledge that neither side seems truly willing to explore with any intensity, but which holds the key to unlocking the potential of student skills, attitudes and workplace perceptions.

The Relevancy Gap is this: Employers believe that high schools do not teach relevant information and skills needed to succeed in the workplace and students do not understand how their course work is relevant to the world beyond high school. Both parties don’t really trust each other and create misconceptions based on a lack of understanding. Students and employers stare at one another from each side of the divide, feeling nervous, excited, apprehensive, ignorant, even horrified. They wonder, what exactly is that far away person thinking about me?

Here’s what one employer is thinking. Perrin Beatty, head of the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters (CME), stated that “high schools were doing a terrible job of preparing workers.” He based his assumption on a 2006 CME survey revealing that employers found entry level or emergent workers to be poor problem-solvers, team players, and technical practitioners. Mr. Beatty, a former Liberal cabinet minister during the Chrétien regime, echoed what some business leaders suggest when young workers do not meet their needs: “High schools are to blame.” You can’t “dis” a school without offending its occupants.

In a 2003 Conference Board of Canada study analyzing hundreds of employers, researchers identified “literacy gaps” in workers’ skills that are contributing to a youthful workforce sorely lacking in teamwork and communication skills. Another resounding endorsement? Hardly.

The same CME study also noted that young workers, usually 16-24 years old, are the most difficult employees to retain at work sites. A 2007 Spherion Staffing Solutions North American-wide survey echoed these findings and also revealed significant disparities in the values and needs of employers and their young staff. More feel good scenarios about bridging the gap? Not.

The odd irony of these and other surveys like them is that high schools are actively engaged in teaching exactly what employers say young people lack: problem-solving, oral, written and collaborative skills, computer training, and specialized technical training. So why would employers suggest that high schools are failing them or say that transferable skills like teamwork and communication are lacking?

The answers lie in the Relevancy Gap. Employers don’t understand what high schools truly do and many students feel as those they are merely jumping through a series of hoops to get irrelevant diplomas. Students want to feel that their work and goals are relevant, that they’re working towards potential life and career fulfillment. Employers want to feel that schools are preparing students for post high school life.

High school classrooms, by their very nature, are very isolated entities and teachers often close their classroom doors to work with their students. They’re working hard, getting through courses with a very demanding clientele. Educators rarely consider how to make their courses, prescribed to them by respective Departments of Education, more relevant to post high school life and consequently many opportunities are lost. If students understand that the math they do is relevant to numeracy expectations at Great West Life, Maxim Transportation Services, or RBC, they just might hone their skill sets with a little more vision and focus. And if they believe that understanding those metaphors and allusions from Hamlet just might come in handy at innovative entrepreneurial companies like Tell Us About Us or Cocoon Branding, they might feel like paying a little more attention to the Bard and pushing themselves a little harder.

The wild card in this entire scenario is the Gen Y student—these kids are known for their computer savvy, need for reward and recognition, environmental awareness, desire for flexibility, and want of a fun and interesting place to work. If businesses expect these kids to go gently into that good workplace, especially to traditional, hierarchical workplaces, authoritative bosses and inflexible schedules, they need to rethink their strategies.

The answer to bridging the Relevancy Gap lies in having both parties approach one another in the gap and avoid negative or ignorant assumptions about what each lacks or offers. Schools need to approach businesses to create dialogues and experiences that clearly model teamwork and other aspects of the workplace environment. And businesses need to approach schools to offer meaningful opportunities to build the skills they covet.

Creative and innovative partnerships between workplaces and schools need to take root in communities so that real understanding can occur between students and employers. Job shadows, internships, co-ops, mentorships, partner-talks, and creative community projects need to be a regular part of all high school subjects. I’m not only referring to traditional “career” speakers who chat for an hour in a closed classroom and then return to their work sites content that they’ve done their civic duty. I mean real experiences that showcase what a work environment looks and acts like and how a business or not-for-profit team makes decisions about reaching its target market. I mean real commitment, real partnership. And once employers and teachers interact and feel the powerful affirmation that comes from helping a young person see his or her future a little clearer, the outcome will be immeasurable.

The Relevancy Gap is real—employers and high school students feel greatly disconnected from each other. Bridging the gap involves making school more relevant for both students and employers so that more stakeholders can contribute to the education of the future workforce. If Mr. Beatty wants skilled, hard-working, focused, effective, and loyal workers and if teachers want to keep students on the edge of their seats, educators and employers will need to approach each other, share stories, identify needs, search for solutions, and work out mutual experiences.

The 21st century has the potential to become a time of serious educational change. High school students will excel when they experience the focus and empowerment that comes from feeling that school is relevant to their lives and when employers make a greater effort to contribute their voices to the education of students.

Adriano Magnifico is the Head of the Career Internship Program at Windsor Park Collegiate in Winnipeg.

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