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Can Merging The Departments of Education And Labor Really Work?

The newest occupant of the White House has broken many conventions since he’s arrived. Shattered, even. But one of the boldest moves so far is a proposal to merge the Department of Education and the Department of Labor to form a single agency: the Department of Education and the Workforce.

This new agency, still enjoying the freedom of the drawing board, would have the unprecedented task of meeting the needs of American students and workers. And while it’s got a long way to go before it could get congressional approval, it shows that one of the Trump administration’s priorities is to connect the missions of employment and education.

This proposed merger comes at an interesting and important time for young people in this country. While higher education is still shown to lead to lower unemployment rates and larger salaries, the value of earning a degree is being questioned — statistics from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York show that employers are less than satisfied with the skills they’re seeing in the recent graduates they hire.

While there may be a skills gap, there is not a talent gap. I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Rich Feller, a well-known counseling and career development professor from Colorado State University, speak at the Western Pathways Conference in May. There, he shared data from a sample of 11,458 Georgia students regarding the alignment of their interests and aptitudes with the economy. According to the study, our students have the innate abilities to fill high-demand jobs, but current interest-based assessments are misdirecting them. And according to Georgia’s Lt. Governor Casey Cagle, using aptitudes to align students’ talents and education pursuits toward the economy is helping to drive economic progress in Georgia.

The argument about whether to attend college or pursue certification from a trade school isn’t new. In fact, it has reappeared in cycles over the past few generations. What has changed are the expectations presented to new employees in the workplace — while schools are still housed in traditional brick-and-mortar locations, 43 percent of Americans are now working remotely in some capacity, according to a recent Gallup survey.

There is a clear imbalance in the expectations set within education for young adults versus the reality they will encounter in the workforce. This could be the reason why the New York Fed found that 44 percent of recent college graduates are working in jobs that don’t require a degree, filling roles in which their qualifications are unnecessary.

Benefits and Drawbacks of the New Department

The proposed merger is not an easy fix, and it brings a long list of potential pros and cons.

One of the major potential benefits is that students will be able to align with particular industries earlier in their education. If they have an idea of what career they want to pursue, a closer connection between education and workplace institutions would enable them to acquire more training and skills development that lead directly into their chosen careers.

This would also have an inevitable effect on curricula within schools — perhaps no more mandatory trigonometry for all, in favor of individualized pathways according to aptitudes and interests. It is certainly true that the current education system hinders students from being able to connect quickly to the workforce, and in the majority of U.S. schools, a simple interest-based survey is used as the basis of career selection.

This oversimplification of young people’s needs can be truly harmful, Dr. Feller argues. The former president of the National Career Development Association explains that people’s interests change over time, and to achieve mastery, one must first understand what one is good at, build skills alongside education, and then be recognized for his or her talents.

But there are downsides that also spring up into the conversation. For example, there are questions about the sheer administrative challenge of how resources will be split. Also, smaller departments, like those ensuring equality and care for young people with disabilities, could be overlooked.

Supportive services that have evolved between education facilities and their surrounding communities are threatened if schools are run like businesses under a joint administration. In a school like Marietta High School in Georgia, for example, teachers and community partners collaborate to holistically improve their students’ lives through a Student Success Center, a facility offering counseling and career advice.

Having had the opportunity to personally work with students from this school, I have witnessed firsthand how giving a student affirmation that they have talent helps transform their attitude and their demeanor. Students become more focused in school and have a greater sense of hope, purpose, and relevance. Leigh Colburn, the director of the Student Success Center, shared a story of a student who was hesitant to look at his career matches. When she finally showed him, he was so relieved. She asked why, and he replied that he was afraid he didn’t have any talent and wouldn’t match with any careers.

When you can uncover a student’s innate talents and show them careers that will pay them for their abilities, this changes their mindset and trajectory.

What Does All This Mean?

It’s clear that our education system needs to change in several ways to better prepare students for a changing working world. Merging the Departments of Education and Labor is one potential solution, but is it too top-down to really work? Bonding education and employment in a more evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, way might be a better answer.

Think back to previous workforce imbalances the U.S. has faced. During World War II, when soldiers were leaving to fight, everyone who was left behind was forced to keep our economy going. Aptitudes were used as a way to quickly identify talents and filter them into the right roles. Maybe the solution doesn’t need to be too drastic; maybe Dr. Feller is on to something.

If we can make simple shifts in how career opportunities are presented and selected as early as middle school, we could help prepare our students for whatever landscape faces them when they graduate.

As the chief evangelist at YouScience, the first online aptitude-based career guidance platform, Armando Garza helps young adults find their best-fit careers at the intersection of talent and passion. A classically trained P&G marketer, Armando brings a diverse background of business and leadership experience, including serving as a nuclear engineer on a Navy aircraft carrier, creating and launching Gain Fabric Softener, and leading the ideation for several Frito-Lay innovations and a redesign of the Pizza Hut delivery business model.

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