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How nonprofits can help students question the status quo

The following article is from Forbes

For the worlds of education and business — and the connections between them — the Covid-19 pandemic has been akin to throwing a deck of cards in the air.

Many college students aren't returning to campus this fall and instead are settling in for a semester of Zoom classes and long-distance extracurriculars. According to a survey from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, more than half of small business owners fear they will be forced to permanently close due to the pandemic. And for recent graduates, the job market, which saw a record-long period of growth and stability, has been upended, with more than 50 million workers filing for initial unemployment benefits.

Many experts expect the pandemic to permanently reshape the industries and institutions that underpin American life — work, play, travel and school — in unforeseen ways. The world of work in particular, already amid a massive transformation driven by globalization and new technologies, will be permanently altered. What jobs and careers look like, what skills workers need to thrive, what educational options best prepare students for the workforce, and what industries shrink and grow to meet the needs of the changing economy all are sure to be changed by the seismic impact of the pandemic.

Against the backdrop of such uncertainty, this moment demands thinking big and questioning conventional wisdom — particularly when it comes to putting America back to work. My organization, ECMC Group, recently launched a campaign, "Question the Quo," to empower students to learn about the various postsecondary education options and to take the career path that's right for them.

For us, questioning the quo means taking assumptions long held by the masses about education and work — for example, that four-year colleges are the right fit for every student, that graduates with bachelor's and master's degrees have fulfilled their educational needs, or that hands-on, technical jobs can't provide stable incomes or pathways to more — and examining them to see if they stand up to scrutiny.

Currently, we're at a critical inflection point. In two surveys of high school-age students — the first before the pandemic and the second in May, during the pandemic — we found that members of Gen Z are open to nontraditional education options. For example, more than half are open to something other than a four-year degree, and 70% want to follow their own educational path.

While some have criticized the quality of the distance learning options the pandemic forced upon schools and students, research from the Strada Education Network found that recent graduates of online institutions were actually more likely than graduates of other four-year colleges to say their programs were worth the cost and made them attractive candidates to employers.

At the same time, Gen Z is rightly concerned about the rising cost of college, especially with the pandemic causing massive economic uncertainty. According to our surveys, two-thirds of teenagers worry about how they'll pay for higher education, and 56% expect the government to provide additional money to help pay off their loans. Strada found that less than half of Americans have access to the education and training options they want.

Lastly, today's teenagers define success as reaching beyond dollars and cents. Eighty-seven percent define success in five years as having a job that matches their passions, while only 30% said success will be defined by how much money they make.

These findings make clear that today's young people are already questioning the status quo and demanding better from their education. They want better training options that are more affordable, more effective in preparing them for the workforce and more in line with their personal and professional passions.

However, it's not enough to simply identify the size of this challenge or the demands of today's students. The current environment demands that we engage in the difficult, long-term work of finding constructive solutions. While executives across sectors have critical roles to play in bringing about lasting change, nonprofit leaders will be especially important.

Here are three ways to bring the "question the quo" ethos to your organization:

  • Offer employee benefits that are focused on lifelong learning. Going to college for four years and working for the rest of your life is an outdated model for many. Instead, workers of the future will engage in lifelong learning, regularly returning to short-term higher education programs to learn new skills or trades. While large companies like Amazon and Starbucks have gotten plenty of attention for their education benefits in recent years, nonprofits offering such programs will help themselves stay competitive in the job market and their employees stay more productive in their jobs.
  • Hire for skills, not degrees. Thanks to support from high-profile endorsers — including a recent White House executive order — skill-based hiring is seeing a surge of momentum. Implementing it within your organization ensures that not only are you getting the right person for the job, but also that your staff will bring a wider range of educational backgrounds to their work.
  • Expand your internship offerings. The pandemic has been especially challenging for recent graduates who have lost opportunities just as they were beginning their careers. At the same time, current employees are balancing an unprecedented strain, with many juggling child care, distance learning and the new demands of remote work. Bringing larger classes of interns and fellows into your organization can thus be a win-win, easing the burden on your existing staff and helping the class of 2020 take the critical first step into the workforce in roles that fulfill their desire for work that matches their passions.

Covid-19 represents both an immense challenge and an immense catalyst for change. If we rise to meet the moment by making the investments that help connect both struggling workers and future generations of learners with high-demand, "new collar" jobs, we cannot just question the status quo, but also build solutions, resulting in an economy that is more productive and more equitable for all workers.

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