Note: This post is part of a series of posts highlighting the challenges that rural communities face in improving public education.  This series precedes SCORE’s Southeast Regional Rural Education Summit on July 19-20. 

An issue in education reform and in my world of workforce development is the fact that young people do not possess the skills required to successfully participate in the world of work. What research suggests, and what I have experienced in my work in south central Tennessee, is that a combination of factors leads to the development of the skills, attitudes, and character needed for work success.  Parents and caregivers lay the foundation, which is built upon by our education system. Yet, much of what competent, solid workers practice today was learned in another environment – on the job. The reality is that the classroom provides many lessons, but there is a disconnect between the classroom and the development of job readiness skills in our young adults after they leave high school. The bottom line is: any solution to strengthen our local economies must include a combination of improving our schools and providing students with opportunities in the workforce.

Here is where my concern grows. The number of young people under 25 unemployed according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in May 2011 is almost 25 percent, and upwards of 40 percent in many of our rural regions and demographic clusters. The first job is where many of us learned the concepts of work, such as you must be at work to get paid for work, you must work well with others to keep your job, and you must work while at work. Without these important first job experiences while young, we could be facing an epidemic that contributes to the growth of a generation unprepared and unaccustomed to work.

In our rural communities served by the South Central Tennessee Workforce Alliance (SCTWA), we have implemented a number of strategies to help youth find opportunities in their career of interest and gain experiences they will need in the future. For example, the SCTWA created a match for area employers willing to hire a summer intern. In exchange for a $1,000 donation, employers are matched with students that completed our Jobs for Tennessee Graduates program—which provides job training and career support to seniors at risk of not graduating from high school—to work through the summer. The young adult receives weekly wages and limited benefits from the SCTWA.  The employer supervises and mentors the young adult, and the young adult receives a paycheck and wealth of great work experience in a field of career interest.  This summer, students are working in the fields of healthcare, banking, manufacturing, and corporate support across our eight county area, gaining so many of the experiences that can only be achieved on the job.

The link between education, employment, and income is undeniable.  We must take personal responsibility in helping young people see that connection and stay on the path to long-term employment and success in the workplace.  Without a strong, skilled, educated workforce in our rural communities, jobs will continue to disappear, and our already weakened rural economies, where unemployment is often in the double digits, will not rebound. A strong, skilled, educated workforce equals growing existing business and industry, increasing the ability to attract new industry, and therefore strengthening our rural economies and returning them to the vibrancy we have experienced in the past.