In order for the Texas economy to continue to grow, the state’s workforce must be prepared for the jobs of the future.

Businesses cannot function without quality workers, and if Texas falls short in this area, economic development will be stifled. At the same time, individuals without marketable skills will find it increasingly difficult to find and keep quality jobs. Educational attainment is a primary aspect of being prepared for a job, but there are other considerations.

Higher education and having a degree translate into to better pay and a lower likelihood of being unemployed, and enhancing the overall levels of higher education in Texas is a worthy goal. The state currently lags the nation in both the percentage of residents 25 and older with high school diplomas (81.6 percent in Texas and 86.3 percent for the U.S.) and bachelor’s degrees or higher (27.1% in Texas and 29.3 percent in the U.S.). Worse, the gap is larger among younger age groups, indicating Texas will likely fall further behind if the pattern doesn’t change.

Despite progress in encouraging college enrollment, affordability is clearly a challenge. Student loans can become a heavy burden, and the costs and benefits of debt can be difficult to analyze. For families where college attendance is uncommon, it is important to provide balanced information about post-secondary options and their benefits to help open the door for more young people seeking degrees.

One promising trend is the growing number of Early College High Schools in Texas. There are currently more than 130 high schools in communities large and small across Texas which have partnered with nearby colleges to allow high school students to earn either an Associate’s degree or up to 60 college credit hours while still in high school. The programs are free to the students, and are aimed at young people least likely to attend college. There have long been dual-credit options, where high schoolers pick up a few college classes (often 12 to 30 hours), but Early College High School takes it to the next level. By eliminating half or even all of the total cost of a degree, the program is a game changer financially. In addition, rather than targeting high-achieving students like most dual credit programs, early college reaches a different group. Students leave the programs either with a degree in hand or the first two years of college experience preparing them for success in obtaining a degree elsewhere—and no debt!!

Not all well-paying jobs require degrees, of course, though virtually all require knowledge or skills with value. For occupations such as electricians or plumbers, licenses require exams and thousands of hours of on-the-job training. Navigating the process involves finding an apprentice position with a master plumber or electrician who oversees training, working toward licensing, passing exams, and continuing education. Jobs pay relatively well, however, and offer a natural path to business ownership.

In the final analysis, though, being prepared for the workforce goes beyond the classroom or license. To be successful, young workers need a better understanding of how business works and how they can succeed there. While teen employment used to be fairly common, fewer teens are joining the labor force. According to US Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the percentage of the population 16 to 19 years that was not in the labor force increased from 51.5 percent in 2004 to 64.7 percent in 2014. Not holding jobs at these younger ages means that workplace skills are less likely to have been picked up along the way.

A recent study by Bentley University regarding workforce preparedness involved a survey of more than 3,000 business decision-makers, corporate recruiters, higher education professionals, college students, juniors and seniors in high school, recent college graduates, and parents. The survey results indicate that business leaders often define preparedness in terms of personal traits or work ethic, and indicate that “soft skills” (such as integrity, professionalism, positive attitude, and communications) are as important as “hard skills” (such as tangible, technical proficiency). College students are far more likely than business leaders to view graduating as a sign that someone is prepared for the workforce and to see a college degree as “virtually a guarantee of success in life.” The survey results point to a significant disconnect between the assumptions of students and businesses, as well as confusion as to what employers really want.

Although characteristics such as integrity and attitude are difficult to teach, it is possible to make young people more aware of the high importance business leaders place on those attributes. It is also possible to explore additional ways businesses can work with educators (both higher education and K-12) to help young people be better prepared. Internships, part-time jobs, shadowing opportunities, and mentoring can all be invaluable experiences for students.

Ensuring that young people are receiving the knowledge and skills they need benefits individuals, companies, and the economy as a whole. Workforce preparedness is a multi-faceted challenge, but the stakes are high and successful efforts are essential to ongoing prosperity.