EMPLOYERS HAVE been complaining for quite a while now about the quality of the high school diploma.
Too many of the young people who tote them into job interviews aren't literate, can't add a column of figures, don't know the first thing about comportment in the workplace and show up late or not at all.
Meanwhile, teachers feel as though they are sending students out into the dark. They have only outdated information about the skills employers want, especially in the rapidly changing area of technology. They can't prepare their students if they don't know what jobs are out there for high school graduates or what it takes to do them.
Caught in the middle are the kids, who have only the most fanciful idea of how much money it takes to live on their own, what kinds of jobs they can do to earn that money and what an employer will expect from them in return.
The Maryland Business Roundtable for Education is attempting to referee this mess. Beginning this fall, its most enthusiastic young members have begun going into ninth-grade classrooms to tell students that real life starts now. Future employers are watching.
They are telling students that their attendance records, their grades in English and math and their ability to complete challenging course work will all be on the table during that first job interview.
Employers will be looking not just at their application, but also at their high school transcript.
"We're here to tell the kids that nothing will go unnoticed," says June Streckfus, executive director of the 105-member group. "We've told businesses that they must use high school transcripts in the hiring process if they want to know what kind of employee they are getting.
"It isn't fair not to tell the kids that what they are doing now will impact how an employer looks at them in four years."
A survey of 1,000 Maryland businesses found that 63 percent hired workers with a high school diploma or less. But the companies complained these employees lacked adequate communication skills, had inadequate writing and reading skills, poor math skills -- and a pretty poor attitude, too.
"Attendance and a work ethic were the single biggest complaints," says Streckfus. "But we found that businesses never asked the questions. They never looked at school attendance. They never looked at the English courses the students took or the grades they got in them.
"How can you think it is important if you don't ask?"
So, on a rainy fall morning Joe Coe, a senior buyer analyst for Baltimore Gas & Electric who went to work for the utility right out of high school, arrived at Eastern Technical High School in Essex to deliver a reality check.
"This is where the rubber meets the road," he tells the ninth-graders. "Now. Not four years from now. When you go for a job, the deciding factor will be your high school transcript."
Crisp, pressed and starched, with a short haircut and no facial hair, Coe told the kids that when he graduated from Baltimore's Mergenthaler Vocational Technical High School in 1982, he had done everything he needed to do to snag a full-time job as an engineer with BGE, and he moved into his own apartment at 17.
"Yep. I was the guy who always sat in the front of the class," says the 35-year-old Coe, smiling.
Ten years later he put himself through John Hopkins University at night "because I wanted to work smarter, not harder," and he has moved up steadily on the white-collar side of the utility since.
He's married, has kids and owns his own home.
But Coe warns that the world of work is no longer a level playing field.
"There is someone out there right now, plotting the same goals you are," Coe says. "What you have to do for the next four years is not be average. You have to work to set yourself apart."
Coe and 90 other enthusiastic and diverse speakers are fanning out through Baltimore County high schools this year to convince ninth-graders that resume-building starts now.
They are intentionally young -- closer to 30 than 50 -- because high school kids sent the message through focus groups that they were tired of hearing from portly, 50-year-old white, male CEOs.
This is just the first step for the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education.
The organization recently took a group of teachers and parents from Patapsco High School on a workplace tour. The No. 1 observation? Everyone works with computers.
"That's not news to us, but that observation is going to change the way teachers teach and the way parents think," Streckfus says.
"If we really believe that high school standards have to be raised," she says, "then we have to tell students that their achievements will be recorded and they will be noticed and they will open more doors for them.
"But the kids will take some convincing."