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Junior Achievement: A solution to the work-force skills gap

By Kathleen Harter


The health of a nation is largely influenced by the makeup of the current and future work force. The characteristics of the work force affect productivity, the economy, and global competiveness. In 2011, about 139 million individuals, or 58 percent of the non-institutional, civilian population (age 16 and older), were in the U.S. work force. 

As the economy recovers, former job positions are being replaced by those that require more technical skills or education. Individuals who were forced to leave the job market are finding it very difficult to reenter the work force because they no longer possess the knowledge and skills employers require. Furthermore, new entrants into the work force also find themselves unprepared for the demand of entry-level jobs that require higher-level skills. 

As a result, employers are struggling to fill open positions. More than half (53 percent) of U.S. companies report a major challenge in recruiting non-managerial employees with the skills and knowledge needed, despite the fact that unemployment is still near 8 percent and millions of individuals are looking for employment.

To remain competitive as a nation, we must address the gap between the knowledge and skills needed by employers and the number of available workers who meet those qualifications. 

Research substantiates previous findings that show a significant gap between the skills employers need and the skills of high-school graduates. In a survey of more than 400 employers in the United States, 42 percent rated the overall preparation of high-school graduates for entry-level jobs as deficient — 73 percent rated their leadership skills lacking, 70 percent rated graduates deficient in both professionalism/work ethic and critical thinking/problem-solving, and 54 percent rated their creativity/innovation skills as inadequate. 

The “skills-gap” exists in professions requiring higher-level skills, particularly careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and among jobs that are often referred to as “middle-skilled” occupations that require credentials between a high-school degree and a four-year college degree. 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (2007) estimates that between 40 percent and 45 percent of all job openings through 2016 will be in middle-skilled occupations. In a recent report by Corporate Voices, the authors argue that the focus on the attainment of four-year degrees ignores the demand for individuals who have a two-year associate degree and/or trade-specific credentials, which is critical for future work-force demands. Jobs requiring four-year degrees and jobs necessitating associate or trade-specific credentials are both necessary to fill the critical gaps in the current and future work force. It is estimated that nearly two-thirds of job openings in the next decade will require some postsecondary education. 

According to researchers, the skills-gap has two primary underlying causes — changing jobs and low levels of educational attainment. Jobs today require workers who possess more knowledge and proficiency in 21st century skills, such as teamwork, problem solving, and technology skills. 

The use of digital communications and advanced information systems has enabled employers to have more workers who perform their jobs remotely. This change has facilitated growth in part-time and contingent employment in many fields and the hiring of inexpensive, increasingly high-quality talent from other countries. 

Furthermore, the level of educational attainment is not keeping up with the number of skilled workers needed in this modern society. The need for a high-school diploma as a minimum is critical as jobs become more complex in a global economy and traditional jobs requiring less education are no longer in demand. 

However, more than 18 million U.S. adults between the ages of 18 and 64 have not graduated from high school and therefore do not qualify for most of the jobs in the current and future economy. The McKinsey Global Institute forecasts that there will be 5.9 million more high-school dropouts in 2020 than jobs available for workers with that level of education. 

Further, while more than 70 percent of high-school graduates enroll in post-secondary education within two years, less than a third earn an associate degree within three years and only half complete bachelor’s degrees within six years. Of those attending college and vocational school, few are choosing fields of study that are high in demand. As a result, many occupations are likely to see potential shortages, including nutritionists, welders, nurses’ aides, computer specialists, and engineers. Currently, the number of graduates in the United States in STEM fields is increasing at only 0.8 percent each year, which will not keep up with the demand in the work force.


Junior Achievement: A real-world solution

Junior Achievement (JA) inspires and prepares young people to compete in a global economy. Through participation in JA programs, students see the relevance of what they are learning in the classroom and its application to the real world, acquire or enhance the skills they need to be successful in the work force or postsecondary institutions, and recognize the value of an education.

For students to acquire the knowledge and skills to be competitive in the work force, they must be taught how to apply their knowledge to real-world issues or problems. Unfortunately, most American schools are not organized for application or contextualized instruction, even though we know that when we teach students how to apply knowledge, they retain it and
perform well on tests.

Junior Achievement programs help bridge the gap between what students are learning in the classroom and the application of this knowledge to the real world by using curriculum that is focused on application and the principles of experiential learning. 


Skills development 

Junior Achievement equips students with skills that are critical to their successful participation in the work force and postsecondary education. Specifically, students in JA improve their 21st century skills, such as teamwork, decision-making, problem-solving, and critical thinking. They also improve skills that will make them more competitive in the work force, including financial literacy and entrepreneurial skills. 

According to a national survey of JA Alumni: 

- 88 percent of Junior Achievement alumni report they are confident in their ability to manage their personal finances effectively, in comparison to 71 percent of those who did not have the benefit of the JA experience. 

- JA students are more likely to own their business; 20 percent of respondents indicated that they own their own business, as opposed to 7 percent of the comparison group and 10 percent of the general population. 

- 85 percent of teachers agreed or strongly agreed that participation in Junior Achievement improved students’ decision-making skills and critical-thinking skills.

- While only 82 percent of non-JA respondents believe they can function well on a business team, 96 percent of JA alumni report that Junior Achievement made them confident about how to work effectively in a team environment.

The results, showing the myriad benefits from JA participation, speak for themselves.


Kathleen Harter is president of Junior Achievement of Central New York, Inc. JA has been providing financial literacy, workplace readiness, and entrepreneurship education to students in grades K-12 since 1966. Contact Harter at


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