This article originally appeared in the February 3, 2012 edition of the Commercial Appeal.
As programs like Education That Works show, our business community will be better when teens get practical experience of part-time work.
By Mimi Hall Uhlmann, Special to Viewpoint
Friday, February 3, 2012
The headline on Thomas L. Friedman’s Jan. 26 Viewpoint column in The Commercial Appeal caught my eye: “In today’s workplace, average is over.” The New York Times columnist went on to write that, “In the past, workers with average skills, doing an average job, could earn an average lifestyle.”
But what really caught my attention was Friedman’s list of current unemployment rates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for Americans over 25 years of age: 13.8 percent for those with less than a high school diploma; 8.7 percent for those with a high school diploma and no college; 7.7 percent for those with an associate’s degree or some college, and 4.1 percent for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher.
I was still mulling those statistics when I came across a fascinating piece in The Wall Street Journal titled “What’s Wrong With the Teenage Mind?” by psychology professor and author Alison Gopnik. Gopnik’s essay explores the problems arising from the earlier onset of puberty in today’s teens coupled with the increasing delay in adolescents’ — and even young adults’ — assumption of real responsibilities. Is there a better example to illustrate her point about society’s acceptance of young Americans’ delay in taking on adult responsibilities than the recent extension of parental health insurance coverage to 25-year-olds?
Gopnik goes on to say that there is strong evidence that IQ has increased significantly in today’s children, and there is an easy explanation for it. They are spending more time in school, have more homework and participate in vastly expanded after-school and summer enrichment programs.
What they lack, however, is the practical experience earlier generations had of working in part-time jobs under adult supervision, and being held accountable for the performance of significant chores at home.
“For most of our history,” Gopnik points out, “children have started their internships when they were seven, not 27.”
Today’s youth lack “the experience of trying to achieve a real goal in real time in the real world,” Gopnik writes, a process that encourages development of the skills and control required to moderate the adolescent impulses of puberty. She cites a metaphor from pediatrician and developmental psychologist Ronald Dahl of the University of California, Berkeley, who says, “Today’s adolescents develop an accelerator a long time before they can steer and brake.”
My experience with the Education That Works program at Memphis Catholic High School convinces me that Gopnik and Dahl are right. In our program, every student in our high school is paired with a corporate sponsor for whom they work five full days per month. The students have real job responsibilities, are given performance evaluations by their supervisors each semester, and can actually be fired if their performance on the job is unacceptable.
For their work, the students earn $5,000 per school year, applied by their sponsor toward the student’s tuition, covering about two-thirds of the cost of the private, college-preparatory education at Memphis Catholic. As a result, the students get valuable real-life experience along with a quality education, and the sponsors get energetic, affordable workers while making a genuine investment in the quality of their future workforce.
Why am I so sure it works? Because in all but the first year of the Education That Works program (which is now in its sixth academic year) we have graduated 100 percent of our seniors. For each of the past three years, more than 60 percent of our graduates have received academic scholarships to college. Last year, that figure was 66 percent.
Lest you think Memphis Catholic is some elitist outpost, approximately 40 percent of our students come from families that meet federal poverty guidelines. Our student population reflects the urban areas from which many of our students come, at 75 percent black, 9 percent white, 7 percent multiracial, 4 percent Latino, 3 percent African and 2 percent Asian. Our student body is 75 percent non-Catholic and about equally split between boys and girls.
These students are succeeding in the classroom and in the office. In performance reviews this past November, sponsors said that more than 93 percent of Education That Works interns met or exceeded sponsor expectations for quantity of work; 88 percent met or exceeded expectations for quality of work. That is a tribute not only to our students, but to the mentors at our sponsor firms as well.
To check back in with the statistics Friedman reported, it bears noting that less than one-quarter of Memphis’ citizens have college degrees. The city’s unemployment rate just improved to 9.5 percent in December, down from 10.1 percent the previous month. This compares with Tennessee’s December unemployment rate of 8.7 percent and the national rate of 8.5 percent. If Friedman’s statistics about the relationship between educational achievement and employment are correct, and the findings of Gopnik and other psychologists are accurate, it appears that programs like Education That Works are a significant step toward more productive teens, and a healthier Memphis business community, in the years ahead.
Mimi Hall Uhlmann is director of corporate recruiting for the Education That Works program at Memphis Catholic High School.