By Tricia Canavan
United Personnel Services is a staffing company specializing in professional, information technology, and manufacturing placement throughout Massachusetts and Connecticut. We experience firsthand the impact of the achievement gap on our young people and their ability to succeed at work and in post-secondary education. We also clearly understand how these educational deficits contribute to the significant skills gap that exists between the jobs available in the Commonwealth and the qualifications of many of our residents.
Many young adults are entering the job market without the knowledge and skills needed to secure living-wage jobs, never mind the high-wage, high-potential jobs that would move them and their families on an upward trajectory. This disconnect impedes our economy, limits opportunities for future economic development, and, most importantly, is a real injustice to our kids here in Massachusetts. In our gateway cities in particular, student achievement and mastery of key skills lag behind those of their peers at a sometimes-staggering rate through elementary and high school.
Consider the fact that 72% of jobs will require a career certificate or college degree by 2020. In Springfield, 23% of our kids don’t graduate from high school in four years. Only 17% of our ninth-graders earn a post-secondary degree or credential within six years of high-school graduation, in part because many graduate unprepared for post-secondary success. For those students who do pursue higher education, a huge number require remedial classwork, wasting valuable time and financial aid on classes that don’t get them closer to a degree.
Massachusetts needs to build upon its long tradition of educational excellence to ensure that all of our kids have the education they need to pursue the good jobs that exist in Western Mass. and throughout the Commonwealth. These are jobs like nurses, advanced manufacturing machine operators, web developers, and physical therapists — all sectors with hiring demands that exceed the supply of candidates — and all jobs that provide wages beyond the region’s median income.
The disconnect between the qualifications of our young adults and the jobs our employers need filled is the reason I co-chair Springfield Business Leaders for Education and serve on the boards of directors of the Springfield Regional Chamber and Associated Industries of Massachusetts. Like so many of my colleagues throughout the state, I am deeply committed to our kids and our Commonwealth and want to be part of the solution to these urgent issues.
We know that the way communities spend state education money has a direct impact on student knowledge acquisition and achievement. It is imperative, then, that any infusion of funding is tied to results — for our kids, their futures, and the economic strength of Massachusetts. We also know that innovative reforms, such as the Springfield Empowerment Zone model that has potential to be expanded statewide, must be accompanied by renewed investment in education.
But we must be cautious as we pursue increased financial resources for our schools. Springfield public schools have received large boosts in funding before, through the introduction of federal grant programs like Race to the Top. But these infusions have not translated to sufficient progress that adequately addresses all that our students need. If we are successful in changing the current funding for our schools without using it as a leverage to do better for our kids, we will have failed.
The cost of the status quo — the achievement gap, the failure to maximize our kids’ promise, the inability of businesses to find the workers they need — is huge. Additional money needs to be used strategically, informed by data and evidence, to accomplish specific goals. We deserve to know what those goals are and whether our schools are meeting them — and, if not, why.
Tricia Canavan is president of United Personnel Services in Springfield. This article first appeared in the blog of Associated Industries of Massachusetts.