02 Nov 2016

Preparing Students for Success in the New Economy

The job market of today looks a lot different than it did 20 years ago. With the decline in mid-level manufacturing jobs (down to 10% from 25% over the past four decades) and a greater need for highly skilled information technology workers, employees without the skills to fit into this new economic landscape are often resigned to low-paying service industry jobs with little to no career growth, benefits or job security.1 In fact, wages for workers with a high school diploma, or those who went to college but stopped short of a bachelor’s degree, are lower than they were at the turn of the century.1

The Economic Cost of Low Wages

But these changes don’t just affect those living near the poverty line. The economic and societal costs of wage stagnation and lack of upward mobility are staggering. Approximately $45 billion in public assistance goes to low-wage workers2, while the link between income inequality and crime has been widely documented.2, 3 And, at $31,000 a year on average to keep an American in prison, the cost to taxpayers quickly adds up.1

Changing Their Story

So how do we reverse this trend of fewer skilled workers, lower wages and an increased reliance on welfare? How do we make sure that our next generation of students is ready to seize the opportunities of the new economy and the high-paying jobs of the 21st century?

At Learn4Life, we understand that it’s not enough to just have a high school diploma anymore. As educators, we need to give students the hard skills and experiences needed to compete for the highest-skilled jobs, as well as the professional skills necessary to excel in the workplace. Our job doesn’t end at graduation. In fact, in some ways, that’s where it begins.

Experiential Job Training

As a Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) partner, we work closely with local businesses and national corporations to provide our students with experiential job training in a variety of industries. Through paid internship opportunities, field trips to local businesses and relevant job training programs, students are able to test out potential career paths and gain invaluable real-world experience — all before they even graduate.

For example, our Prints4Life print shop gives students hands-on experience managing a real business that provides printing services to the local community. In addition to learning how to safely operate silkscreen, embroidery and other printing machinery, students are also in charge of customer service, sales and support — allowing them to understand the day-to-day needs of a functioning business.

We’ve partnered with universities, vocational schools, trade organizations and industry leaders to expand our career-based course offerings, allowing students to earn credit while working to find their career path. This type of experiential job training not only helps improve our students’ chances for employment — it strengthens our state’s workforce and economy.

Focusing on Technical Education

Another thing that’s become clear is that technical expertise is no longer an optional skill for today’s graduates. With the pace of technological change only increasing, it’s vital that graduates gain these in-demand skills. Our Career Technical Education (CTE) programs are designed to help students master real-world technical skills, including coding, 3D printing, robotics, digital media, IT essentials and agricultural science.

Our Cisco Labs IT program, for example, helps students gain important computer technical skills and the chance to get certified to work in the information technology field, while our partnership with CyberPatriot is helping to prepare the next generation of cyber defense experts. And our partnership with Makerspace has given students access to the latest technologies for designing, building and creating in a variety of mediums. In addition to preparing them for skilled trade jobs, these programs help them improve their problem-solving skills, and trial and error methodologies.

Finding Out What Employers Want

But job training and experiential learning are only half the story. We also wanted to find out directly from employers what they were looking for in potential employees. After organizing a focus group with representatives from Fortune 1000 companies, including the United Parcel Service (UPS), Disneyland Resorts, Marriott, Boeing, CKE Restaurants (Carl’s Jr.) City of Anaheim/Mayor’s office, we found that a lack of “soft” skills in incoming employees was hurting productivity and success. Behaviors like showing up every day for work, being on time every day, being a team player, and showing respect and politeness to superiors were in short supply.

This insight led us to develop a mandatory professional skills program designed to ensure that students have the interpersonal skills needed to work successfully in a team environment. In conjunction with WIOA partner Access Inc., we introduced an 8- to 10-week seminar to help students master 24 observable work readiness skills — eventually leading to a Workforce Readiness Certificate. By 2017, every Learn4Life graduate will have completed the Professional Skills course.

Rising to the Challenge

At the end of the day, we know this is much bigger than just one organization. It’s going to take the combined efforts of legislators, teachers, communities and educational leaders to help graduates meet the challenges of the 21st-century job market. It’s not going to happen overnight.

But if there’s one thing we’re not worried about, it’s the ability of our students to rise to the challenge. Every day we witness Learn4Life students overcoming extraordinary obstacles — whether it’s poverty, gangs, teen pregnancy or instability at home — to find their voice and set their sights on a better future. It’s what motivates us to keep improving and finding new ways to help them succeed after graduation.

It’s what drives us to help them change their story for the better.



  1. Job Training Works. So Why Not Do More? – New York Times
  2. Knowledge Exchange Recap: Poverty, Wage Stagnation and Employment Policy – BPI Chicago
  3. Inequality and Violent Crime – The Journal of Law and Economics