College & Workforce Readiness

Employers Are Integral to Career-Tech Programs

March 25, 2015 8 min read
Philadelphia high school student Nashali Caquias listens to feedback during a mock job interview at a career fair organized by Academies, Inc., a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that connects businesses and public schools and helps implement career academies.
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The rapidly changing job market and the new wave of career programs taking hold in schools are offering up a new challenge for educators: how to form deeper, longer-term relationships with employers in their communities.

No longer called “voc ed” or considered an alternative pathway just for struggling students, today’s career and technical education programs aim to prepare students of all academic levels for the option of entering the workforce or going to college. In keeping with a national standards framework for CTE, such programs increasingly are centered on broad career clusters, rather than training for specific jobs.

As schools strive to keep up with the technology and make their curricular offerings relevant to workforce opportunities, many are looking to businesses and policymakers to take a bigger role than ever before in shaping and supporting those programs.

Such efforts also come as the Common Core State Standards have made “college and career readiness” the touchstone for K-12 education.

Last year, 46 states and the District of Columbia took action to boost career technical education with nearly 150 new policies to provide more funding, expand innovative employer partnerships, and strengthen programs that provide college-level credit in high school. And the call for greater employer engagement in schools’ career and technical education programs has been sounded in recent reports from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium.

“Education can’t do it alone anymore,” said Kimberly A. Green, the executive director of the Silver Spring, Md.-based CTE directors consortium. As students in the new economy need a different skills set, employer feedback is paramount—and not just through the old model of an advisory committee that meets once or twice a year. “It requires more interaction, more regular connection, more guidance to stay abreast of workforce change,” she said.

Cultural Divide

Facing shortages of skilled workers, many businesses are eager for schools to produce more highly educated graduates.

“The education system always lags behind the labor economy in terms of the jobs created,” said Edward E. Gordon, the author of Future Jobs: Solving the Employment and Skills Crisis, published in 2013 by Praeger Publishing. “The problem now is that the changes are occurring so fast that the school system is being left behind in the dust.”

But it can be a challenge for businesses to know how to connect with schools.

Part of the difficulty is that educators and employers operate in different cultures. Business people are often used to moving quickly and efficiently, while educators live within the constraints of bureaucracy and regulations. The divergent cultures can clash, according to those who manage such partnerships.

To bridge the divide, some districts are enlisting third parties to coordinate collaboration and funnel job information from the business community to schools.

One such model, known as a Regional Talent Innovation Network, or RETAIN, brings together businesses from various sectors through an economic-development association or chamber of commerce to work with schools as they develop career-training programs.

Begun in the 1990s, the RETAIN movement is gradually gaining momentum, according to Mr. Gordon. Although there is no formal RETAIN organization to track the model, the Purdue University Center for Regional Development lists 1,400 such networks and similar public-private partnerships in its database.

Businesses, once reluctant to share job projections for proprietary reasons, are increasingly open to collaboration and sharing, and employment outlooks are also available on websites, such as Career Outlook in the U.S., which uses U.S. Department of Labor data.

Schools also have their own set of challenges in retooling programs and doing it with business involvement.

“Educators have many different types of requirements they have to meet these days from the federal government, the state government, and the local government. That’s part of the challenge to try to get everything in,” said Stephen DeWitt, the deputy executive director of the Association for Career and Technical Education, in Alexandria, Va. While some members know how to reach out effectively to employers, others do not, and the problem grows as large numbers of CTE teachers leave the field, he added.

Every January, employers in Vermilion County in eastern Illinois are asked to complete a jobs-projection survey, administered by Vermilion Advantage, a member-based organization that focuses on workforce-development needs. Core employers identify their needs two years out for both new and replacement positions.

Acting on Data

Using the data, skills training in the schools can be adapted to plug the gaps, said Vicki L. Haugen, the president and chief executive officer of Vermilion Advantage. As a result, the organization has pushed for more training and career-awareness activities in the schools related to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Even though local businesses are often competitors with one another, there was a recognition that they needed to be transparent about job needs if the schools were going to be able to train students, Ms. Haugen said. “At the end of the day, they all have the same objective: to build the workforce system so they all benefit … and that is attractive to new folks coming to the area,” she said.

The detailed jobs-projection survey takes two or three hours to complete, but employers such as AnnMarie Cross, the manager of human resources and technical recruiter for Watchfire Signs, are willing to participate. In the past decade, the led sign manufacturer has expanded from 75 to 330 employees.

“Most everything we hire [for] is at least basically technical, if not highly technical, and we really struggle to find folks capable of a lot of what we do,” said Ms. Cross. Providing the information helps the schools adjust the curriculum so the company can find entry-level machine operators whom they train through high school or community college internships.

In 2006, Nashville, Tenn., redesigned its public high schools into smaller learning communities where students are taught through the lens of a career or academic theme. The Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce was invited to share regional workforce projections and create a structure to advise the schools on related career pathways, said Marc E. Hill, the chief policy officer for the chamber.

Five industry-based partnership councils, each chaired by a business person, meet quarterly to give feedback on career trends and relevant certifications and to be a resource to educators. As a result, some cosmetology programs have been dropped and replaced with STEM-related programs.

Teacher Learning

To keep teachers up on what’s happening in the career areas they teach, Nashville schools and businesses offer summer externship programs. Teams of general education, CTE teachers, and school counselors spend a few days as entry-level employees at local businesses and develop a project for their students based on what they learned on the job site. “It’s been really transformational for teaching and learning in the districts,” said Jay Steele, the chief academic officer for the 82,863-student Metropolitan Nashville school system.

And in North Carolina, workforce teams last fall went on a listening tour to gather information about the job needs of 1,000 employers in 100 days. The “1,000 in 100" initiative was spearheaded by the governor’s office in an effort to make sure that the training in high schools, community colleges, and universities is meeting the needs of local business.

“You have to be proactive. Employers are in the business of running their businesses,” said Debbie Davidson, the vice president for business workforce solutions at Gateway Technical College in Kenosha, Wis., which works with K-12 schools and employers. “They all say there is a skills gap. Our job is to define the skills.”

To accommodate employers’ schedules, she holds breakfast meetings and keeps them tight.

Rather than asking employers to fill out a survey, Ms. Davidson writes down what they say at the meetings and responds with curriculum ideas. Employers will be more engaged if they feel their opinions are valued, she said, adding that “they are not contributing if they just rubber-stamp ideas.”

Still, Ms. Davidson said capacity issues at the 24,000-student college sometimes get in the way. There have been instances recently where employers wanted to implement a new program immediately. However, the college’s workforce-training faculty typically needs a month or two lead time.

“We are not always able to make the match,” Ms. Davidson said.

Seeing Careers Firsthand

Along with input on needed skills, employers in various places are being asked to help prepare students with exposure to careers. For example:

  • In Nashville, all high school juniors must participate in job shadowing, and seniors all have internships and service-learning experiences, for which they are required to write a research paper, Mr. Steele said.
  • Business leaders through the Vermilion Advantage in Illinois volunteer in the schools with robotics and engineering projects as well as staff a “career lab” where they explain what it’s like to work in fields from graphic design to electronics, said Ms. Haugen.
  • In Wisconsin, Ms. Davidson worked with the local high schools, the community college, and businesses to develop “boot camps” for manufacturing.

The training can lead to well-paying jobs after graduation, said Ms. Davidson. However, employers typically aren’t inclined to guarantee job placement, she added. And, increasingly, some employers have declined to supply a letter of commitment to applications for government grants because such letters require employers to make hiring pledges.

As employers give more of their time, though, they start to see themselves as “collaborators” and “co-owners” entitled to a return on their investment, said Ms. Green, of the career technical education consortium. “There has to be a value proposition as to why employers are involved in this,” she said.

Coverage of efforts to implement college- and career-ready standards for all students is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 25, 2015 edition of Education Week as Employers Integral to Career Studies


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