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Preparing Today's Students for Tomorrow's Jobs in Metropolitan America

reviewed by Yasemin Besen-Cassino - March 07, 2014

coverTitle: Preparing Today's Students for Tomorrow's Jobs in Metropolitan America
Author(s): Laura W. Perna (ed.)
Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia
ISBN: 0812244532, Pages: 344, Year: 2012
Search for book at Amazon.com

President Obama, in a February 2009 speech, emphasized the role of post-secondary education not only in its role in educational attainment, but also in future success in the job market.

I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be community college or a four year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship. But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high-school diploma. And dropping out of high school is no longer an option.  Its not just quitting on yourself, it is quitting on your country- and this country needs and values the talents of every American (Obama, 2009).

The role of educational institutions in preparing students for their future jobs and providing market-related skills has received ample academic and non-academic attention, especially in the aftermath of the recent economic recession.

Academics, policy makers and politicians are discussing the role of education in preparing young people for their future jobs.  By 2018, 63 percent of all jobs will require at least some postsecondary education or training, (Carnevale, Smith, & Strohl, 2010), yet it is becoming less attainable, particularly for urban youth. Furthermore, many scholars and policy makers are debating the relevance of the skills provided by schools for qualifications in future careers.

In the edited volume Preparing Todays Students for Tomorrows Jobs in Metropolitan America, Laura W. Perna focuses on this timely topic: the role of different educational institutions in preparing students for their future careers. Especially with the recent economic recession, technological advances, and the rapidly changing skill requirements of the new economy, the role of education in preparing students for future jobs has been widely debated.

Perna argues

Ensuring that todays students have the education and training required for the jobs and careers of tomorrow is critical for reasons of international competitiveness, national employment productivity, and the economic and social status of individuals. Improving the match between educational preparation of workers and the knowledge demands of employers is especially important to the continued economic and social health and vitality of our nations metropolitan areas (p. 15).

In this timely work, Perna brings together a wide range of theoretical and empirical pieces to address this question and offer concrete solutions, particularly in a metropolitan setting. The edited volume is organized in three broad sections. In the first section Defining Success in Preparing Students for Work, the authors try to define success. In Chapter Two, Katherine Barghaus and colleagues provide a comprehensive discussion on what workforce readiness is.  What does it mean for students to be fully prepared for work?  This is a heavily theoretical section that situates the concepts of workforce readiness within the historical debate and attempts to provide an operational definition.

The second section, The Role of Different Educational Providers in Preparing Students for Work, moves the debate from more theoretical and abstract concerns and explores the roles of different educational facilities in preparing students for their future jobs. In this section, authors explore roles of different educational providers such as technical education, community colleges as well as for profit colleges. Nancy Hoffmann, for example, focuses on technical education in the United States and discusses promising practices for technical education in American high schools, but also points to the relative poor performance of the United States in international comparisons, especially of common indicators such as youth unemployment rates, employment rates, high school completion rates and OECDs PISA assessment rates. She finds that the higher success rates of technical schools in other countries are explained mainly by policies more supportive of young people, with a higher percentage of the youth population participating in technical and vocational schools.

Similarly, Thomas Bailey and Clive Belfield explore the role of community colleges and call for a balance between academic and applied knowledge. This section, which is rich in empirical data, provides a comprehensive overview of the roles of different educational institutions, especially within the rapidly changing technological climate.

In the third, and the final section, Implications for Institutional Practice and Public Policy, the authors move the debate from empirical discussion to a more applied one, offering a wide range of policy recommendations to strengthen the school-work transition. For example, Richburg-Hayes and colleagues offer strategies for K-12 and post secondary institutions to prepare students for future careers. Ronald Ferguson emphasizes the importance of having multiple pathways, integrating work-related experiences as early as elementary school. Wolf-Powers and Andreason focus on urban economic development policies and emphasize the importance of industry partnerships and sector-based initiatives. In offering policy recommendations to strengthen the school-work linkages and work opportunities for young people, Holzer points to socio-economic and racial inequalities in the metropolitan areas.

This is a very comprehensive volume, bringing together research from a wide range of backgrounds including theoretical definitions, measurement and outcome issues, empirical data analysis, and policy-oriented pieces. In one volume, Perna captures the central debates on the role of educational institutions in preparing students and providing more work-related skills.

One of the biggest strengths of the volume is its focus on metropolitan areas. Such a focus acknowledges the disproportionate allocation of resources and other challenges of the metropolitan setting. Bailey and Belfield as well as Carnevale show that higher levels of education result in higher levels of future earnings, and the benefits are especially high for metropolitan students. Despite the benefits of education, students in metropolitan areas also face greater challenges. Metropolitan areas are home to lower educational attainment and limited high-quality jobs. The volume highlights racial and socio-economic inequality in educational attainment as well as in access to high-quality jobs. The volume also articulates the need to do more to align the educational qualifications of workers with the knowledge demands of jobs, especially in our nations metropolitan areas (p. 260).

Another strength of the volume is the concrete examples and the detailed empirical research. In particular, the international comparisons of technical and vocational education provide concrete alternatives and solutions.

This is a very comprehensive volume with three distinct sections, providing a detailed overview, but one of the challenges of such a volume is integrating the three distinct sections. Unfortunately, the three sections read as separate without an overarching framework: the first section being theoretical, the second section more empirical and the last being more policy oriented.

The metropolitan focus is welcome addition to the understanding of the school/work transition debate. However, there is uneven inclusion of racial and socio-economic inequalities throughout the chapters. While some articles exclusively make such inequalities and urban policies salient in their arguments, the metropolitan focus is not present in all the chapters. Some of the chapters focus on our overall education system and include suburban students as well, losing the metropolitan focus. A more uniform anchoring of chapters in the existing literature on the metropolitan setting will help the book greatly.

While the volume points to unequal resources and opportunities, especially with socio-economic backgrounds and resources, there is a marked absence of gender inequality. There is emerging research on marked gender differences in educational outcomes between boys and girls in metropolitan areas in terms of educational attainment, drop-out rates, and academic success. Therefore, including such recent and central findings on gender differences would provide a more comprehensive picture.

Overall, this volume is a welcome addition to a timely social debate: the mismatch between the skill demands and the skills provided by schools for metropolitan youth. Perna provides a comprehensive overview, bringing together theoretical, empirical, and policy perspectives. This volume will be a useful resource for scholars and graduate students in education, sociology, and other social sciences.


Carnevale, A., Smith, N., Strohl, J. (2010). Help wanted: Projections of jobs and education requirements through 2018. Washington, DC: Center on Education and the Workforce.

Obama, B. (2009, February). Address to Joint Sessions of Congress. Retrieved from http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-of-President-Barack-Obama-Address-to-Joint-Session-of-Congress

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 07, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17453, Date Accessed: 10/27/2021 12:56:17 PM

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About the Author
  • Yasemin Besen-Cassino
    Montclair State University
    E-mail Author
    YASEMIN BESEN-CASSINO, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Montclair State University. She received her Ph.D. from SUNY Stony Brook in 2005. She is the author of Consuming Work: Youth Work in America (Temple University Press, 2014).
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