Why preparing students for the modern workforce isn't just about sending them to college


Did you catch Elon Musk's recent tweet, soliciting 10,000 workers for Tesla's new Gigafactory in Del Valle, Texas — no college degree necessary?

In Musk's new home city of Austin, jobs are opening faster than they can be filled. The message from employers like Tesla is urgent and clear: if you can prove you can do the work and get here now, we need you —whether you have a four-year degree or not.


Companies are getting creative to address the skills gap in the modern workforce


Tech isn't the only sector strapped for talent, as any construction foreman can tell you. At the same time, the lines between industries continue to blur. For example, research conducted by the American General Contractor's Association and Autodesk found that 80% of construction firms say craft labor is the hardest to find. As a result, firms across all four geographic regions have begun to innovate with technology like drones and 3-D printing (27%) and virtual construction or modeling software (23%) to supplement the workers they do have.


Then there are the recruitment strategies like increased base pay (66%) and direct participation by firms in career development programs at local high schools (50%) to capture interest and talent early.


Not interested in construction? States with critical healthcare worker shortages have begun enticing the talent they need by paying off student loan debt. When Google announced it would start certifying UX design, project management, and data analytics skills, employers paid attention. Companies ranging from Smucker's and Hulu to Deloitte all seized the opportunity to be the first to access certificate holders as employer partners.


Why do stories like these grab so much attention? It isn't just that Elon Musk is a high-profile figure. It definitely isn't a sudden national resurgence of interest in jam companies.


These stories challenge the assumptions and narrative around what education and work are "supposed to" look like. And that's exciting.


Preparing students for the modern workforce means letting go of preconceptions about education, career exploration, and rewriting the limiting definitions attached to achievement and success. That's a big job, but it's less daunting when you know where to start:


1. Confront and correct outdated perceptions


The first step in preparing students for the modern workforce is debunking typical career and technical education (CTE) myths. Misconceptions that position CTE as "second best" to college prep create unnecessary stigma and keep talented students from exploring areas they would otherwise thrive in.


Ensure that the language, programming, and tools your district uses for college and career readiness do not de-prioritize CTE — even unintentionally.


Students on career-focused tracks are just as driven as their college-bound peers, so feel free to acknowledge that! Giving equal weight to college- and career-based outcomes can signal that either is worth pursuing.


2. Support student-led career exploration and give them career interest assessment tools that resonate


How many times has something labeled "one size fits all" really delivered on that promise? In our experience, seldom if ever.


It's the same with college and career readiness. When students are asked to fit their interests, experiences, skills, and personality into a single outcome — college, for instance — they might be able to do it, albeit uncomfortably.


Why not try it the other way around? A student with a penchant for geometry might make a great structural engineer. Or they could be perfectly suited to modeling video game assets. They could be equally equipped to a career in construction.


Each of these careers requires a different set of skills developed in various instructional models. A job that fits right depends on both interest and acumen. Having the resources to align the two and explore the possibilities encourages students to find the one that feels just right.


3. Provide real-world representation with community partnerships and work-based learning opportunities


"It's hard to be what you can't see."


This quote, attributed to Marian Wright Edelman, the first Black woman to gain entrance to the Mississippi bar, has become shorthand for expressing the importance of representation in education and cultural narratives, especially for underrepresented communities.


It applies here.


Elon Musk's endorsement of prioritizing ability over alma mater is significant, but it isn't necessarily representative.


By partnering with experts, entrepreneurs, and experienced professionals who live and work within the same community as students, school districts can demonstrate the value of CTE and work-based learning in both practice and theory.


Enlisting community expertise helps build crucial real-world networks that support students and while supplying talent to local employers. There is no better way to demonstrate the validity of workforce-based outcomes than introducing students to people within their own community who have successfully done so.


Preparing students for the modern workforce isn’t just about sending them to college — it’s about democratizing access to every preparedness avenue. It’s about validating alternative paths to “success”, and empowering them to own the planning process by meeting them where they are and getting them where they want to go