The answers to these questions may surprise you. In my role as a journalist, I covered a local economic summit recently. The event was hosted by the North Carolina JOBS Commission, with the avowed purpose of bringing state business leaders and educators together so that educators could learn what skills employers sought most in employees. It was an eye-opening experience, one that both motivated me to change some of the ways I homeschool my children and encouraged me to see that that there were so many advantages that homeschooling offers prospective job seekers. In this article, we will discuss some of skills that employers seek and how we can best prepare our children — and ourselves — for survival in today’s job market jungle.
1. Be willing to learn
The job market is changing rapidly and we have to be willing to change with it. In the past, options were fairly limited, and career counseling meant simply matching the right person to the right job. However, the reality is that we need to prepare our children to meet the challenges of jobs that are entirely new. Laura Bingham, former president of Peace College, explained, “The challenge we face in this fast-evolving economy is that we have to educate our children now for jobs that don’t exist yet.”
As Sam Houston, President and CEO of the North Carolina Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education Center, commented at the conference, “Today, it is important that we give students strategies to deal with the unknown.” Our increasing economic dependence on new and changing technologies means that almost everyone has to be in training mode at any given moment. Those who have not learned to process new ideas and adapt to new workforce realities will be left behind. Those who are willing and eager to learn will thrive. Developing in your children this ability and eagerness to learn is a key to future prosperity.
2. Focus on higher education, not just college
In the past, the conventional wisdom has been that a college degree is necessary to achieve economic success. Indeed, those with a bachelor’s degree are likely to make almost twice as much in lifetime earnings as are those with only high school diplomas ($2.1 million as opposed to $1.2 million, according to a 2002 U.S. Census report).College graduates are also more likely to have jobs that offer benefits.
However, the current focus on technical skills and job-specific training means that programs offered by community colleges and technical training schools are increasing in importance. You may opt for this training instead or plan to begin with an associate’s degree in a specific field and transfer to a broader-based college program later. Even an associate’s degree is likely to increase earning potential by a significant amount (an average of $1.6 million in lifetime earnings).This option may also make better economic sense in terms of college costs and allows homeschool students to ease into classroom situations before approaching the more academic rigors of earning a bachelor’s degree.
3. Plan on a backup career
Another advantage of looking to local trade and technical schools is that it prepares you for more career options should your original plans fail. As many people have learned during the current economic struggles, careers are not always certain, no matter how good you are. The more skills you have under your belt, the more attractive you are to an employer and the better your chances of finding a fallback position. As Rick Davis, an executive with Spirit AeroSystems quipped at the conference, “I make it a point to make coffee at least once a day so that I have a marketable job skill.”
4. Develop entrepreneurial skills early
Several of the CEOs of large corporations represented at the summit bemoaned the fact that many people were entering the job market with little or no idea of how businesses ran or of the cost of doing business. “Where is the kid with the corner lemonade stand or the summer lawn service?” one of these business titans bewailed. Even such simple jobs teach the value of a dollar and the realities of cost and profit. Fortunately, homeschooled students are in a prime position to initiate those kinds of creative, successful endeavors. The flexibility of homeschooling makes it easier for a teenager to work a job, compared to his traditionally schooled counterparts. In addition, according to the TOS Magazine Reader Survey 2007, of the nearly 5,000 homeschooled families who responded, roughly 15 percent of homeschooled children are either involved in their family’s home-based business or own their own businesses.
5. Improve your communication skills
If you survey the jobs section of most newspapers or websites, you will soon realize the importance of good communication skills. Oral and written communication skills are a must for those who work with the public or who are seeking higher-level management positions. Unfortunately, these qualifications are becoming more and more rare. As Dan Gerlach, President of the Golden LEAF Foundation, complained, “This generation knows how to ‘tweet,’ but they don’t know how to look you in the eye and talk to you.”
Fortunately, homeschooled students tend to score much higher in these areas than others do, primarily because they tend to communicate on an adult level earlier and more often. Parents can enhance their students’ communication skills with solid language arts and rhetoric programs and the inclusion of strong vocabulary and writing elements in curricula. These efforts will more than pay off in the long run.
6. Develop logic and critical-thinking skills
Another common theme among business leaders is the desire to hire employees who demonstrate strong logic and critical-thinking skills. The typical employee, they said, can push a button but has a hard time recognizing when a problem exists and knowing how to troubleshoot it. Also, as Dr. Bill Carver, President of Nash Community College, pointed out, “So many students are so used to multiple choice questions, that they have trouble making connections between things in the real workplace.”
These skills are so important that many pre-employment tests are now testing such elements to help determine fitness for a position. Fortunately, a wealth of traditional and homeschool-specific books that address issues such as logic, critical thinking, and problem solving is available. Some games (computer, video, and board games) also help develop skills in this area. (“Professor Layton and the Curious Village” is one of my video game favorites). When buying gifts for your children, it may be a good idea to look for books and games that develop these skills.
7. Hone computer skills
Let’s face it: We now live in the 21st century and computers are here to stay. Most young people today have grown up in a computer-oriented world and therefore already have an advantage over older jobseekers who may still be a little wary of technology.
Almost every job today requires some familiarity with computer basics, so plan on investing in a good computer and software packages (such as Microsoft Office) that are commonly used in the business world. Sites such as www.academic-collegiate.com allow homeschoolers to purchase software at lower prices, a courtesy commonly offered to public schools. Courses in keyboarding and basic computer skills are available from a variety of sources ranging from computer software to online classes to local community colleges. Of course, actual practice is the best instructor, as most homeschooling families already realize. According to the TOS Magazine Reader Survey 2007, nearly all homeschool families own computers.
Job applicants also should possess good computer skills. Today, most employers require individuals to apply first online, either through the Internet or through a company’s intranet computer. Many companies also make use of computerized tests and survey questions as a part of the online application process, so it is to the applicant’s advantage to gain experience with this type of test-taking format. Many of these tests focus on communication abilities, critical-thinking skills, and interpersonal relationships.
8. Work on social skills
Many jobs today demand good customer service skills,and therefore the qualities of common courtesy and self-control are in high demand. Homeschooled students often excel in these areas because they tend to be able to adapt easily and successfully during interaction with a variety of age groups and are more comfortable in situations that involve adult interaction.
Years ago, when I was traveling home from a homeschooling conference, I met a businessman on a plane. As we talked, I discovered that he was the CEO of a corporation that owned a group of nursing homes. Though he did not homeschool, he told me that he and his staff actively recruited homeschool teens to work for them because homeschoolers tended to interact better with the senior citizens and had more flexible schedules. Clearly, he had seen firsthand the advantages homeschooling gave to employees.
At the economic summit I attended, several of the prospective employers also mentioned social networking media skills as a huge plus. Some prospective employers now request that you send them links to personal websites or social networking accounts such as Facebook. However, these links can function as a two-edged sword: Their use indicates that you have computer savvy and great social media skills; however, they also reveal a great deal of information about your life and personality. Make sure that these sites don’t contain elements that would harm your reputation or reflect a negative attitude toward authority — good advice in any case.
9. Enhance your resumé
Even before young people begin the job hunt, they can begin to find ways to enhance their resumés. Many employers now want resumés that focus on acquired skills, rather than mere experience. Keep track of your volunteer work and entry-level jobs, and document the skills that you have learned. For instance, you could increase your audiovisual, computer, or child care skills by volunteering at your church. You could improve your social skills by volunteering at a hospital or nursing home. Or you could learn organizational skills by helping to set up events for your homeschool group.
A listing of classes you’ve taken at your local community college can enhance your resumé too. Even courses such as CPR training, auto repair, sewing, or child care add to your skill set and indicate a desire to learn. Of course, computer and keyboarding classes are particularly valuable.
As you can see, success in today’s job market requires far more than educational basics and a good work ethic. The more scarce jobs are, the more choosy employers become. However, the news is good for homeschooling families, because many of the skills and attitudes that are in such great demand are ones that homeschool families focus on. Homeschoolers have the potential not only to thrive in today’s economy but also to be the economic leaders of the future. However, it is up to us — their parents — to equip them for the challenges that lie ahead.