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I once attended a meeting with a group of state education officials, policy makers and businesspeople. They were talking earnestly about a state requirement that all sixth graders develop a career plan to guide their paths through middle school, high school, college if they chose, and on into the career they had envisioned.

After listening for a while, I asked for a show of hands from those who felt they were currently working in a job they would have selected for themselves in sixth grade. No hands went up, but a nervous titter did.

As part of a rounded, purposeful educational experience, it’s fine to have sixth graders cast ahead to life after school and how they might earn a living. It can be some fun, too. But based on what we know about how our proclivities, talents and life circumstances change over time, it makes little sense to pretend that middle schoolers can and should chart a glide path from preadolescence to settled, wage-earning adulthood.

In fact, much of the current debate about education for work has a heavy air of unreality about it. It’s not just thinking that sixth graders need to start concentrating on careers. It’s failing to see that industries and jobs that many of them will work in have not even been invented yet. Twenty-five years ago, there was no Amazon or Google, no burgeoning set of allied health and fitness professions, no emerging artificial intelligence boom.

For the hard-to-fill jobs that are here now -- such as in manufacturing, the trades and welding, in particular -- let’s increase joint school-work opportunities. Cooperative work experiences, apprenticeships, internships and work-study placements in fields related to such jobs could be expanded at both the college and high school levels.

Such methods of acquainting students with current jobs can be combined with partnerships with manufacturers, say, to dispel outdated attitudes about the plant floor. A regent of the University of Wisconsin system who owned a manufacturing company had a mantra for students and parents who conjured images of dark, dirty, dangerous factories: “We don’t hurt you anymore!” His point was that much of contemporary manufacturing is done in clean, well-lit places via computer technology operated by skilled technicians.

Of course, employers paying more and offering attractive in-house training for jobs that go begging could be a potent part of the mix to develop a bigger, better work force. So could two basic abilities among employees that a business association leader recently touted to me: the ability to pass a drug test and the ability to use an alarm clock!

In higher education in particular, we also need to build more new degree pathways that allow students to get ready for their first job while taking into account what might be their second job and their longer-term career arc. For example, the University of Wisconsin system now offers a bachelor of applied studies (B.A.S.) degree at several campuses in cooperation with the Wisconsin Technical Colleges. I’ve referred to it as the “upside-down degree.” Students complete an associate degree at a technical college in a specific applied field and then move to a University of Wisconsin campus in their junior and senior years, with no loss of credit, to broaden out into their general education.

That turns the usual general-to-specific curriculum on its head. Students can enter these programs immediately out of high school, or after earning the two-year technical degree, while working and then deciding a baccalaureate is necessary for further career advancement. The programs are available online and in hybrid delivery formats.

A side benefit is that faculty members enjoy having more working adults in their general education classes -- older students who have the experience to understand both the personal and professional value of these liberal arts and sciences courses, as well as to enrich class discussion for all the students. More ways for colleges to incorporate shorter-term badges and certificates awarded in the workplace into such degree programs, and to offer similar “chunked learning” credentials themselves, could help both with job acquisition and upward mobility.

One hears a lot about downward mobility these days, especially of liberal arts majors -- concerns they and other recent graduates will be living in their parents’ basements without steady employment, struggling with six-figure student debt and postponing marriage, house buying and adulthood generally. A 2016 New York Times survey asked what people thought the unemployment rate was for 25- to 34-year-olds who graduated from a four-year college. The responses:

  • Times readers’ average: 9.2 percent
  • Google survey average answer: 6.5 percent
  • Correct answer: 2.4 percent
  • For those with only a high school degree, it’s 7.4 percent.

Such misunderstanding distracts us from what we do know: to be successful in the disruptive work environments that characterize new industries, employees need the fundamental kinds of knowledge and skills most often developed through a good liberal arts education. They include critical thinking, clear writing, persuasive speaking, numeracy, the ability to work well in diverse teams and an understanding of global issues. So discouraging students from studying the liberal arts is shortsighted and dangerous, especially for American leadership long term in a rapidly changing global knowledge economy. To be competitive over the long haul, the country needs its higher education system to prepare the work force of today and the work force of tomorrow.

Our language gets in the way of doing that well. The assertion that college is not for everybody surfaces regularly. When you peel back to what those pushing that notion mean by it, you often find that their default idea of “college” is pursuing a four-year degree at a residential institution in a subject that does not seem to them to be job related. But a student going to the local community college for a certificate in software development or an associate degree in hospitality management might sound to them like a grand idea.

That’s why those of us in higher education should be insisting to the rest of the world that in 21st-century America virtually everybody needs some postsecondary education and credential to make a decent wage and live a decent life. We should all be loud and clear that community colleges are, in fact, the institutions that can be the best place to start for students interested in what they have to offer. Then when some of these students decide they need a baccalaureate degree to go further in their career or satisfy their own curiosity, we can make pathways such as the bachelor in applied studies available to provide them with a different kind of college experience. This sort of thinking makes a lot more sense than impossibly long and winding career pathways for sixth graders.

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