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The mayor made news last week when he announced a $14 million vocational education program geared toward high school drop-outs and truants. But a national initiative supported by State Education Commissioner Richard Mills might offer another solution for struggling students: a work readiness credential that could potentially serve as an alternative to a diploma for students unable to pass their Regents.

“We need to know if they’re able to participate in the workforce,” said Beth Buehlmann, executive director of the Workforce Participation Project at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has backed the effort to develop a nationally recognized credential. With most states requiring students to meet college-oriented standards to obtain their diplomas, education and business officials are looking for ways to assess whether students are ready for the workplace—even if they aren’t college-bound. The goal, said Buehlmann, would be to assess basic “soft” skills, such as teamwork and basic math and reading.

It’s no idle concern: At least half of the 126,000 new jobs expected in the city by 2010 will be in service sectors like office administration, sales and food service, according to state Department of Labor projections. Many of those jobs do not require workers to excel at upper-level math and history, but they do need workers who have mastered those soft skills.

For now, the biggest concern is whether offering an alternative credential would lessen students’ resolve to finish school. If it is not linked to a diploma, educators fear, the credential could make dropping out a more viable route for students. “It is the highest priority of the commissioner that it not be an alternative to a high school diploma,” said Thomas Dunn, a spokesperson for the state education department.

Still, that raises concerns for Buehlmann. “If you had a strict prohibition on this so that only people with a high school diploma [can get it], you’re losing one-third of your potential workforce,” she said. “You have disadvantaged youth that don’t graduate. So are we going to say that they couldn’t take the work readiness credential?”

Jackie Cruz, 21, sees it both ways. Now working on her GED for the second time—the math component thwarted her first attempt—the ninth grade dropout wants to complete high school. But she’ll readily admit that, while completing her degree would be satisfying, it’s the difficulty of getting a job without it that really drives her. “I really am the type that hates school,” said Cruz. “A lot of times, I get myself discouraged, but now I say ‘Fuck it. You have to learn.’ I just really want a job.”

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