According to economist Paul Krugman, the belief that America suffers from a severe skills gap is “one of those things that everyone important knows must be true” despite his claim that “multiple careful studies have found no support for claims that inadequate worker skills explain high unemployment.” He calls this a “zombie idea — an idea that should have been killed by evidence, but refuses to die.” But Kruger’s perspective is that of an economist rather than a business owner, and the issue will not die if schools do not teach students critical skills for life and career. According to the National School Boards Association (NSBA), every student should master six critical “LifeReady Skills” in preparation for the larger goal of success in life, including employment and education after K-12.

What are LifeReady Skills?

A Report of the Commission to Close the Skills Gap,” a joint initiative with more than ten leading industry groups, identifies six “LifeReady Skills” as a set of critical skills that are essential for the success of students in most of their life’s endeavors. LifeReady skills, as shown in Figure 1, include dependability, adaptability, critical thinking, decision making, customer focus and teamwork. In other words, to get students ready for life, schools need to foster personal skills, applied knowledge skills, workplace skills and people skills.

Figure 1. LifeReady Skills

A figure that shows six life ready skills that encompass four categories: personal skills, applied knowledge skills, workplace skills and people skills.

Can Early Career Awareness Foster LifeReady Skills?

Students often chose to go to college after high school because their parents told them so from a very young age. The statistics from the U.S. Department of Education show that the vast majority of American parents expect their children to earn at least a bachelor’s degree (Figure 2). “Parents see college as the launching pad for their children’s career success,” according to a national survey conducted by American Student Assistance. However, when parents were asked why they expected their children to go to college, many said that they wanted their children to gain skills needed for future employment and good paying jobs.

Figure 2. Parental Expectations for Children’s Educational Attainment after K-12

Multiple graphs that show parent expectations for children, broken up by student sex, race, grade level, school size, locale, and education level of parents. The majority of parents across all these variables expect their students to receive at least a bachelor's degree.

As can be readily seen, LifeReady skills are not specific occupational skills but skills that equip students with great potential to succeed in college, career and every endeavor of life. Career counseling experts, such as Dr. Julie Cerrito from the University of Scranton, suggest that childhood is a critical stage in the process of lifelong career development. America’s Career Resource Network recommends many career awareness activities for students both at home and in school.

Evidence shows that:

How Can School Leaders Foster LifeReady Skills Through Enhancing Early Career Awareness?

NSBA and its partners encourage school districts to design and develop programs to enhance students’ career awareness. The Report of the Commission to Close the Skills Gap recommends school leaders “institute a campaign to promote middle-class, highly-skilled jobs and change the perception that the only good jobs are those that require a college education” as early as elementary school. How can schools change this perception and introduce all life-path opportunities to students?

Early career awareness can start from talking and programming:

  • Talk with children, with parents, and with teachers. It is important for children to become aware of how their schooling is connected to a successful future. While in elementary school, parents and schools can help children to connect what they are learning in school to real-world situations and develop work-readiness skills such as working and playing with others, making decisions, solving problems and being a leader.
  • Program career awareness through technology, educators' professional development, and partnerships with local community. Web-based career planning systems (e.g., Galaxy) can be a novel, fun, and educational approach for elementary school students to explore their future careers, according to Dr. Julie Cerrito. For educators, professional development enables them to transform the classroom experience and bring real-life, career-related projects to their students.

Collaboration between business, education and community leaders is certainly a best practice in terms of preparing students for life. A good example is Barren County Schools in Kentucky. The school district developed programs through Project Lead The Way (PLTW) and then hosted exhibitions to showcase how PreK-12 students in their district develop in-demand, transportable skills, such as the abilities to think critically, collaborate and communicate. Students from each grade level shared with the community how their projects are solving real-world problems.

“I can help someone.” This was the statement that people from the community heard the most from students during the exhibitions. As PLTW President and CEO Vince Bertram said, “When you have this knowledge and these skills, you can use them to solve problems for people, and companies are looking for people to do that.