Sunday, September 15, 2013

What My Job Search is Telling Me About Students' Needs

I’m a professional educator without a position for this year.  For the first time in the past fifteen years, school is starting without me.  I found a teaching position when I was fresh out of school, two department chair positions and a great administration position as my family and I got bounced around during the recession - my wife’s the family “breadwinner.” After moving for what I’m truly hoping is the last time - or at least to my last town - ever, though, I just have not been able to make it happen, yet (I’m still looking and hopeful).

I have a theory about some of the root causes of my current joblessness - besides the literal reason that I resigned my position from 2012-2013 - and would like to propose a fix to our schools to help better position our students after they graduate.  Let me explain my thought process.  I have fourteen years experience in public schools that includes substantial work on innovations and initiatives that cover any facet and reform that has come to public education in the near past.  I have a double major and minor from my undergraduate studies and am essentially at enough graduate credits for two masters degrees.  I am certified in four states for just about any job I could name - from teacher straight up through superintendent - aside from business manager.  What don’t I have?  Interviews.  

I can account for it in two ways.  (Since people rarely if ever get to talk to hiring managers about not getting interviews or not being hired, I don’t know exactly why, but I have theories.)  One, I’m applying for my fourth job in five years.  The reality is that regardless of how sensible and necessary and out of my hands my moving around has been, people may be hesitant. They’d see my resume and say: “Hmmmm…he’s risky…too much movement...he’s not committed...he won’t stay” and never have me in.  In a different day and age, I’d buy that more easily, but in today’s work force climate, I’m thinking that people moving around is more prevalent and more understandable than ever.  After all, a giant chunk of the country has been out of work and had to move for work, right?  It may play a role, but I just can’t see this as my major obstacle.

What is it, then?  The two missing pieces to the puzzle?  

Number 1: not enough solid connections.  I got to interview for three great positions - two of which I got the jobs - because I knew people who knew people and was smart enough to work connections.  People I know even got me in front of interview teams for positions that were essentially filled already just so I could get some interviewing practice.  Please know that there have been a number of people who have offered help and a few who have been able to pass my resume along, but I have very few solid people in my new area (Northeast Massachusetts), making the likelihood of my knowing someone who knows someone who has a job for which they can say “Dave’s your person” very slim.  It doesn’t matter how hopeful the news is about joblessness and hiring trends; there are a lot of qualified people out there, and a lot of them - unlike me - know the people who are hiring.   The LinkedIn model of job searching isn’t fictional.  The more 1st tier connections you have, the better off you are.

Number 2: the specificity that employers are free to now ask for when searching.  I don’t want to say that “transferable skills,” those Common Core and common sense nuggets of being analytical and literate, communicating well, working with teams for a variety of purposes and audiences, etc. aren’t valid.  Job seekers need to have general skills and a solid background. I’d even say - in my case - that people think it’s great that I’ve taught elsewhere and had roles close to the one for which I’m applying.  Ultimately, though, big whoop.  You and two hundred others communicate well and build capacity in work teams.  It’s just not enough any more.  I’ve seen hiring committees pass on veteran middle school teachers because they have no 9th grade experience.  World history teachers won’t necessarily get invited in for American history interviews.  Suburban teachers don’t get interviewed for urban jobs and vice versa. Forget about leaving education...not even education businesses want educators; for them, it’s all sales, marketing, psychometricians, and software architects.  

For me, I have a PLN that I’m continuing to build, a LinkedIn profile I’m solidifying and a number of local connections I’m trying to make.  I figure that some patience, some luck and a few good mojo dances will eventually put me in a good position.  For our students, though, here’s what I’m suggesting:

Internships / Apprenticeships:  As soon as possible, students need to be given the chance to work in a field of interest.  We should be giving businesses tax breaks to host local students for flexible periods of time so that they can learn skills, understand the type and amount of schooling that would actually be necessary for that job and also leave it if they aren’t interested.  I’m also not talking about a week or two at the end of senior year or a day with professionals in the building; I want my kids to work a lot, and early on.  Can they go to a workplace instead of taking an elective or two?  Can we realize that minimum wage jobs aren’t nearly as important as career-training apprenticeships and get them out of the mall stores?  Seriously, I’d pay my kids the crappy wages myself so that they can spend summers and weekends working for free with a professional whom they respect.  If they have work in a retail shop, be sure to help them understand the business as well as the importance of greeting customers.  In the same sense that all of k12 academics should include at least pieces of literacy development, all work done by secondary and college students should have a career-training focus to it.  Schools ought to be helping students make those connections, learn from those experiences and plan their higher-ed experiences around them.  Doing this would both give students the specific skills employers want and the human connections that are mandatory for their eventual job search.  Are schools keeping alumni chains going to help students find the most appropriate connections?  Do our schedules and credit systems keep students locked into our buildings to be in a class whose credit they need for graduation instead of at a workplace they could use to jumpstart a career?

Changing a lot About College: There are increasingly fewer people who are going to be able to afford college and earning degrees the way we did.  Higher ed needs to place marketable job skills at its forefront while offering workshops/audits/experiences and other creative, interest-driven, non-mandatory options for liberal arts and “exploratory” courses that are now being required as gen-ed credits.  With even state schools dipping well into the 30,000/yr range in places, it’s just not sustainable.  How many years of a graduate’s life do we really feel ought to spent paying back the cost of being exposed to Early British poetry, Egyptian folklore, or some disconnected 100-level business course?  If graduates really need those for a position, they’ll know that early enough and take those courses.  They don’t need to be required.  Remember that employers are asking for increasingly specific skill sets.  Those classes may need to be invented.  

Finally: self-promotion. In 1988, I graduated high school from a highly reputable school in a highly reputable school system that was sending hundred of students to college every year (around 550/graduating class) and dozens upon dozens to top tier universities.    While I was afforded the chance to take a number of college-credit-bearing courses that eased my gen-ed load, there was no mention of SAT prep, no assistance with writing application essays, and no career days or college advice being given.  There were people from the universities who came in and spoke to small groups, but that’s about that.  Now, of course, schools are almost ubiquitously helping students do all of these things.  The needs are shifting, though.  Every recruiter to whom I’ve spoken now tells me that I need - on top of the connections and specific skills I’ve already spoken about - a media presence and profile(s).  What should we see in senior year of high school? A media course that helps students understand the importance of and actually creates personal blogs, websites, LinkedIn profiles, Twitter accounts and whatever other professional portfolios may be a part for prospective career paths of the student’s choice. Yes, many of these may appear pretty empty at first, but at least there would be a template for students to begin filling in.  They’d know to add work experience as they’re getting internships or at least to get internships that would give them good experiences.  


Please know that I love the liberal arts and what I refer to as National Geographic science (really interesting stuff that may or may be applicable to anything; it’s just interesting).  I studied literature, psychology and theater in school.  I taught high-school English for 13 years. I don’t want to demean it, but in a world where more choices have to be made by more people regarding what can be done and what has to be put aside, I’m worried about whether or not we’re doing right by our k12 and higher ed graduates.  If we say that graduating high school and undergrad are important but see that now additional certifications and degrees are required to get into the workforce, we need to be very careful about the importance of things we’re asking from them and the way we allocate increasingly limited resources.  


  1. I hope you find a job soon. I think part of your problem could possibly lie in the last part of this blog. If you've communicated ideas like this in your cover letter and CV, then perhaps educators-those who are left after the corporate "reform" bloodbath-could be turned off. Turning school away from education and toward job graining will do irreparable harm to our society, to our democracy. There are educators left who know this. If we turn high schools into job training centers, students in the low and working classes will never get to move into higher societal sectors. I wish you all the best. Think outside the box. Apply everywhere, for every teaching job you can find. Apply for maternity replacements. Any way to get your foot in the door.

  2. HI Laura - Thanks for posting. I could have been clearer about the truth that I'm hoping we find a middle path, a place where academics aren't compromised but kids can learn skills geared towards job markets. I think there are potential problems in doing this, but if we're hoping for a strong future, we have to be willing to open up all conversations. Yes, I've been burned by those who don't want to have the tough discussions. It hurts, but I can't help it. Thanks for the advice and the support.