Former Gov. Rendell, Leaders in Education Address the Gap Between Labor Markets and Education

PHILADELPHIA  -- At last week’s “Preparing Today’s Students for Tomorrow’s Jobs in Metropolitan America: The Policy, Practice and Research Issues” conference, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said that Congress is asked every year for more work visas to staff computer programming jobs because there are no Americans willing or capable to fill those jobs. 

While firmly in support of immigration to invigorate the United States, Rendell asked: “Why aren’t our kids able to fill those jobs?  Because the education system fails.” 

Leading experts on education and policy-making at the two-day conference, co-hosted by the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and the Penn Institute for Urban Research, presented strategies for innovation and planning to help the American education system address the needs of both youth and industry. 

Research presented at the conference points to the need to create permanent communication links between employers and educational institutions to enable students and educators to work toward their educational goals while keeping many possible career tracks in mind.

Ronald Ferguson, senior lecturer in education and public policy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Harvard Kennedy School, presented a detailed strategy for this in his comments on “Engaging Employers in Systems of Pathways to Prosperity.”  By including employers in the education process starting in upper elementary school through programs like school visits, Ferguson argues that children will be able to “accumulate a menu of possible selves” and to see that “all work is honorable.”  The task is to broaden young people’s conceptions of education and the horizon of possible career/life paths. 

Ferguson is currently looking into a number of metropolitan sites to begin implementing his strategy.  The focus on urban metro sites is key because, as Harry Holzer, professor of public policy at Georgetown University, said, place is important -- there is often a “spatial mismatch” between where a potential workforce lives and where the job opportunities are located. 

As Penn IUR Faculty Fellow Laura Wolf-Powers of Penn’s School of Design noted, the contemporary American city is being transformed into a location of highly skilled and fluid employment possibilities.  Urban youth need to be educated on potential paths to success beyond their immediate locations. 

Rendell said it takes a lot of careful planning to ensure that the education system does not fail to prepare youth to learn the skills necessary for today’s workforce and argued that the nation needs to invest more in education and innovation, because education will determine whether America will continue to be an economic power.  “The return on investment is to keep America great,” he added.

A book based on papers written for this conference will be forthcoming.