Imagine for a moment that you’re at John Deere in Davenport, Iowa. During your tour of the factory, you happen to meet Megan, who has been there for five years. What’s her story?

While a sophomore in high school, Megan was doing well academically—and she also wanted to try welding. So she took one metal fabrication class, followed by a second, third, and fourth until she completed all the courses and got to Capstone.

Megan also earned industry certifications and landed a welding job at the heavy equipment manufacturer when she graduated from high school. After about a year with John Deere, she signed up for the company’s tuition assistance program to earn a bachelor’s degree in business administration. She now has a four-year college degree, no debt, and advanced technical and professional skills, and she’s moved from an hourly worker to salaried staff.

“She found all the avenues and unconventional ways to get where she wants to go,” said Mark C. Perna, founder and CEO of TFS and a leading voice on today’s inter-generational workforce.

Perna’s bestselling book, Answering Why: Unleashing Passion, Purpose, and Performance in Younger Generations, offers advice on how to explore a multitude of careers and their various education and training pathways with middle and high schoolers.

“There are millions of Megans out there and that’s the power of apprenticeships, certifications, and licensures,” Perna said on CCG’s STEM Education podcast. “I’m a big fan of young people who want to go off to college and get a four-year degree. The challenge is that it’s become a very expensive proposition,” he said.

Perna’s key message to the nation’s governors, lieutenant governors, K-12 statewide superintendents, Chancellors of community college systems and Fortune 100 executives, is that most people read the phrase ‘college and career ready’ as the only way to be successful is to go to college.

While he agrees that all kinds of careers go through college and require baccalaureates, master’s degrees, and PhDs, he says we don’t focus enough on the value of apprenticeships, certifications, and licensures.

“We should be demonstrating all of these options and opportunities today so that they can choose the right one for them based on their unique interests, talents, and abilities,” he said. “The world has changed, and educational and workforce development systems must shift the paradigm, creating guidance for young people to go wherever they want to go. For young people to become self-reliant and independent they must follow their personal light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.

Perna says he doesn’t advocate for one kind of education over another but advises young people to pursue three critical things to succeed in the workforce of the future:

• Robust academic knowledge
• Critical technical/hard skills
• Powerful professional/soft skills

Together, these three areas comprise the single most important competitive advantage in today’s new workforce, Perna says. Young people who demonstrate academic prowess plus technical competency plus professional skills—like punctuality, flexibility, work ethic, leadership, communication, work-life balance, stress management, and networking skills—are in high demand. Employers know they can train such individuals to perform at the highest level.

Perna added that most high schools are focused on simply getting young people to college, without necessarily knowing what they’re going to do there.

“Some young people have an inkling, some have direction, but most do not and do college exploration at $2,200 or $2,400 a month during the semester,” Perna said. “They’re collecting all this debt, not knowing what they’re getting out of it or maybe not even completing college at all. That’s the disconnect: not giving purpose to what young people do or want to do.

“To create purpose for young people from elementary to middle school and middle school to high school, there must be early career exploration, opportunities for young people to see what’s out there, job shadowing, internships, apprenticeships, and more.

“They need to see what’s possible at the time when it’s least expensive in their lives to do that,” Perna said, adding that college, when the financial clock is ticking, is not the best time for career exploration.

To begin the career-ready experience, parents, grandparents, influencers, schools, and guidance counselors must approach it as a series of conversations about lifestyle goals. Visit MarkCPerna.com for more.

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