To Reach Today’s Students, Listen to Them

COLUMBIANA, Ohio – Speaking to educators, business leaders and economic development specialists, Mark Perna explained the roadblocks in reaching today’s students and the importance of career-focused education.

Perna, the author of the book “Answering Why: Unleashing Passion, Purpose, and Performance in Younger Generations” spoke about creating a purpose for young people to learn beyond grades and the expectations of their parents.

“We’re still trying to do this in silos,” he said.

He said the key to transforming young adults into successful workers is connecting the pipeline between education and business.

Teachers and administrators from five schools across Columbiana County attended Perna’s speech Aug. 17 in the Crestview Local Schools Performing Arts Center. The event was sponsored by the Columbiana County Educational Service Center and the Columbiana County Business Advisory Council.

Anna Marie Vaughn, ESC superintendent, said the business council knew it wanted educators to hear Perna’s message after he addressed the council in January.

Young people today, ages 8 to 25, are not lazy, Perna said, but they will not move forward without knowing that what they are being asked to do is important and that it serves a purpose in their lives. He also said they are the first generation to require a human connection to motivate them, something society has gotten further away from during the pandemic.

Young people today question if anyone is truly paying attention to them. They are asking, “Do you hear me? Do you see me and do I matter?” he said.

Perna questioned if schools or employers are really listening to students or just pretending to do so. Many students, he said, just want to hear “I understand” to create that connection and get them to take a step forward in their lives.

Once you make that human connection, Perna said, they can be pushed harder and held to higher expectations.

More than 90% of employers rank professional skills at the top of their list of employee must-haves – showing up on time, passing a drug test, critical thinking and problem solving. Yet schools are not doing a good job of preparing students to do that, Perna said.

He stressed the importance of educators and businesses connecting the dots, for teachers to create a passion in students so that they understand the importance of gaining the skills  in whatever career pathways they choose.

“If the want-to is strong enough, the how-to will come,” Perna said of today’s students.

Instead of making college, the military or technical training the priority, Perna suggested educators highlight the lifestyle at the end of the tunnel. Once students are involved in pursuing their education with a purpose and have an idea of what they really want, this generation will move mountains to get there.

Additionally, Perna said many young people  think they are smarter than the rest of us and are always looking for shortcuts or hacks. They question why something has to be done this way or that, not to challenge their teacher or boss, but because they just know there must be a better way of doing it.

Another concern Perna has about the current generation is the many students who believe they have to be perfect to be successful. He noted there will be straight-A students who will one day be working for C students.

He challenged the phrase “college and career ready,” noting people usually forget the “and” between those words and need to remember college is not the next step for everyone leaving high school. He believes schools should be trying to get everyone career ready, whether that means college, technical school, military, apprenticeships or certifications.

“It matters less where you start after high school,” Perna said. “It matters more where you end up … We have to start thinking differently in America.”

While he emphasized there is nothing wrong with a college education if that fits a student’s chosen career path, the highest academic achievers do not have to go to a university to be successful. Young people understand the gig economy and that there are many ways to become successful.


Some 30 members of the audience who are members of the business advisory council were hearing Perna for the second time. The council is one of two in the state to receive the Ohio Department of Education’s highest honor, the 2022 Four-Star Award for Excellence.

Robert Bachinger, vice president of safety and training at Compco, said he is a member of the business advisory council because he believes businesses need to get involved and “our kids need our help.”

“[Perna] was amazing,” Bachinger said after hearing the speech. “I loved his energy. I like his message. It actually fits what we’re trying to do in this community.”

The take-aways Bachinger got from the speech included the idea of “for-now decisions.” Young people are more willing to make a decision if they know they have the freedom to adjust or change the goal later on, according to Perna.

Bachinger, who serves as chair of the council’s governance committee, said Compco has changed its way of recruiting and retaining employees, added flexibility and encouraged new employees to grow with the company as ways to stay competitive in the job market.

William Dawes, branch manager of Fairway Independent Mortgage of Salem, serves as the school and business partnership chairman with the business advisory council.

He joined the council after he became concerned for young people, who were coming to him for a mortgage for their first home only to learn that with their income levels and student loan debt, they did not qualify. Of the 1,500 credit reports he runs each year, half show the individuals are burdened with college debt and a quarter did not even get their degrees.

Perna said too many students are doing “career exploration” at a cost of $3,000 per month and they cannot afford it. College debt is at $1.6 trillion and 25% of the students graduating are making less than $30,000.

“I was infuriated,” Dawes said, “Thirty-thousand dollars in debt with nothing to show for it.”

Too many young people, Dawes believes, are still being taught that you must get a college degree to be successful. Many millennials who followed that path are now resentful, he said.

“There are not a lot of groups realistically trying to look at the labor problem, the education problem and this skilled job problem,” Dawes said. “This [council] is doing that.”

Another lesson from Perna’s speech that stuck with Dawes is the driving philosophy of “purpose over pay.”

It is similar to the real estate industry’s mantra of “people over profits,” Dawes said, adding it is important that the people who work for him can see where the company is going.

“Paychecks are important, even for Gen Z,” Perna said. “You have got to have a paycheck, got to make it worth it.

“But vision and purpose trumps everything. They’ve got to see what’s possible … How does my contribution … add to the greater good.”


Some of the suggestions Perna gave for finding the best young people is to emphasize the job’s responsibilities instead of listing requirements like a bachelor’s degree.

He suggests job advertisements that focus on the skills and qualities needed are more likely to get a talented person without a degree to apply.

Young people are also looking for flexibility at work, he said, and even if it takes some “outside the box” thinking, employers must look for ways to make that happen.

Young people also want to see phrases like diversity, equity and inclusion are being put into practice.

Perna will host a call to action event Oct. 20 with a livestream on his website for business leaders and educators interested in learning more about his message.