Prepared Remarks from Secretary DeVos to the National Leadership and Skills Conference

Archived Information

Prepared Remarks from Secretary DeVos to the National Leadership and Skills Conference

June 27, 2018

Thank you, Grace, for that introduction. Tim, thank you for putting students at the center of everything you do at SkillsUSA. Governor Bevin, thank you for the warm welcome to Kentucky and to Louisville.

I've spent most of my life in the private sector, and I still feel more at home at events like this—with leaders of industry, creative thinkers, and doers — than in the acronym-obsessed halls of Washington, D.C.

I know all of you in red blazers appreciate this gathering as an opportunity to share ideas, compete on the floor (which I look forward to seeing tomorrow), take part in leadership workshops, network with peers and discuss ways to prepare all students for today's and tomorrow's careers.

There's one thing for sure... you'll enter an economy the strongest it's been in years! After the historic tax cut and jobs act, confidence is at a new high and unemployment at a new low. Nearly 3 million jobs have been created since President Trump took office, and Americans are more confident in their prospects than ever before.

In this room, I know we have the next generation of our nation's engineers, chemists, energy entrepreneurs, graphic designers, TV producers and maybe even real estate developers...if you dare!

It's our shared belief that there should be multiple avenues to pursue your education. Students need a full menu of options, each of which can lead to fulfilling careers and meaningful lives.

Organizations like this one are integral to a student's educational experience. SkillsUSA offers students remarkable opportunities to acquire technical skills, and also essential—but often underappreciated—competencies like critical thinking. Collaboration. Communication. Creativity. And cultural intelligence. These are broadly transferrable abilities for our constantly iterating world.

A dynamic and changing economy requires dynamic and changing approaches to education. We must expand our thinking about what education actually is, and resist the urge to elevate one particular avenue at the expense of others. There should be many variations, because there are many types of students with many different interests. And there are many opportunities in our economy.

The antiquated notion that education begins when you are five and ends when you turn 21 or 22 suggests that education is merely transactional, with a finite beginning and end. But there is no finish line. We know that learning is really lifelong and that nimbleness and continued personal growth are attributes to be embraced.

Careers are like highways, not one-way or dead-end streets. Highways have many off-ramps and on-ramps. Students should be able to exit easily for a time to learn a new skill, then re-enter the highway at an on-ramp of their choosing and change lanes as needed.

There are many avenues to earn what individual students want and what employers need: industry-recognized certificates, two-year degrees, stackable credits, credentials, licenses, advanced degrees, badges, four-year degrees, micro-degrees, apprenticeships and so on.

All of these are valid pursuits. Each should be embraced as such. If it's the right fit for the student, then it's the right education. And importantly, no stigma should cast a shadow over a student's journey to success.

Proper credentials send important signals to employers. The question is whether those credentials match what employers need — and what employers think those signals mean.

Think about it this way: students seek out a credential — a bachelor's degree, an associate's degree, an advanced degree — because they think it will send a signal to employers that they are employable. But too often what they learn while earning that credential isn't actually what they need to do the work they are hired to do.

This mismatch persists, and today there are too many higher education institutions graduating students with skills that employers don't need. While at the same time they lack the necessary skills for success. There is a fundamental disconnect between education and the economy. I recently visited a country that has long been intentional about addressing that. Employers and educators in Switzerland work hand-in-hand to line up the skills required with those actually learned. It's a bottom-up, self-defined solution. It's a partnership like SkillsUSA, one that must be more widely embraced here.

While in the United States we confront stigmas associated with technical education and apprenticeships, in Switzerland this sort of educational opportunity is commonplace. It's so interesting that more than two-thirds of current high school students pursue their education through apprenticeships—in every sector of the economy. Not just the skilled trades, with which we are more familiar here, but also healthcare, finance, law and countless others.

In fact, the CEO of UBS, one of the largest banks in the world, started his career as an apprentice in a bank. That's not typical here, but I believe it should be!

I recognize all nations are different. Education in the U.S. isn't the same as it is Switzerland, and American companies don't yet have the same experience in delivering apprenticeships as Swiss companies do. But their approach is one from which we can all learn a great deal.

One important take-away is that business leaders in Switzerland didn't ask for a permission slip from government to partner with educators. They had a need for better prepared students, and they did something about it.

Right now, with our growing economy, there are 6.7 million unfilled jobs in United States. So, business leaders: instead of calling a legislator, visit an educator! And educators, visit a business leader and see first-hand what is needed for today's and tomorrow's opportunities.

The Swiss approach demonstrates that people of every age can be productive, up-to-date members of the workforce, that businesses should take an active role in cultivating the next generation of talent, and that hands-on learning should be embraced by everyone. We all benefit when students are able to apply their learning to solve problems and pursue practical applications in the workplace.

This administration is focused on making opportunities like that more the norm in the United States. I think of a public high school I visited in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. It has over 20 different career and technical offerings, including an innovative Mechatronics program that, in partnership with local business, enables students to earn an industry-recognized credential before graduation.

We need more of these opportunities... many more of them! We're working to empower institutions and innovators by removing roadblocks that keep them from pursuing their core mission: serving students.

Whether by breaking down barriers to distance education and customized competency-based education or reforming accreditation regulations to promote rather than resist change in higher education... we're looking at whatever is necessary to ultimately empower students.

And perhaps what we have not done is just as important. We have not imposed onerous new regulations and requirements on states, school districts, innovators, colleges, teachers, parents or students.

We're fundamentally reevaluating what we do and how we do it. Washington's bloated bureaucracies do not meet the needs of our global economy and labor market, and they create artificial barriers between education and workforce programs.

Last week, this administration announced a bold reform proposal to combine the Departments of Education and Labor. This would be an important step in reducing the federal footprint.

Ultimately, our children and their futures demand that we fundamentally reorient our approach to education. We need a paradigm shift... a rethink.

"Rethink" means we question everything to ensure nothing limits a student from pursuing his or her passion, and achieving his or her potential.

Today's students need learning environments that are agile, relevant, exciting. Students need customized, self-paced, and challenging life-long learning journeys.

What they need is freedom!

Freedom to learn differently. Freedom to explore. Freedom to fail, to learn from falling and to get back up and try again. Students need freedom to find the best way to learn and grow... to find exciting and engaging combinations that unlock individual potential.

Because what you learn is about much more than just acquiring "skills." You are your most important resource. Your education is about you. It's not about "the system" or collecting diplomas. It's about your aspirations and abilities. Your passions and pursuits. Your ingenuity is what gives life to your education, and ultimately, to your communities and our country.

With SkillsUSA at your side, I am hopeful for our future. I look forward to cheering you on tomorrow and learning more about all the great things you are doing.

Thank you!