At this small, rural school in Northern Kentucky, five women are trying to lift the arc of young people’s lives with the wonkiest of weapons: labor-market data.
The staff of the iLEAD Academy knows which jobs are in demand statewide and in the five-county region their students call home and which ones will still be hot a decade from now. They’ve bookmarked the websites that list the salaries of those jobs for each tier of certification or degree earned. And they’re talking about this stuff with students. All the time.
As a result, most of the teenagers here understand the nuts and bolts of the regional job market. They know which communities are clamoring for registered nurses and which ones want licensed practical nurses. They can tell you how much they’ll make as an entry-level robotics technician and whether the pay differential between an associate degree and a bachelor’s degree in that field justifies a four-year-college investment.
That kind of knowledge marks iLEAD and its students as a rarity. Policymakers are putting increasing pressure on schools to prepare students for the world of work, but few teachers or administrators know how to find—and use—labor-market information that could help them shape their programs and the way they guide students.
Nationally, counselors handle the lion’s share of career planning, but few are trained to incorporate workforce trends into their advising. And their caseloads are so heavy that they typically lack the time to dive deeply into career planning with students. That leaves young people in a vulnerable place as the national economy shifts.
“High schools run the risk of building a bridge to nowhere” for students if they advise them about careers without important nuances grounded in data, said Anthony P. Carnevale, who studies labor-market trends as the director of the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce.
A Changing Picture
For many years, schools have urged all students to earn bachelor’s degrees because, overall, they carry higher lifetime earnings. But economic changes—and the cost of college—have made that picture more complex.
with an industry credential or associate degree than they can with a bachelor’s, Carnevale’s research has shown. Coupled with projections about which jobs will be in demand in the coming years, that kind of information is crucial for students as they imagine their futures, he said.
The iLEAD program opened three years ago to help teenagers answer those questions. The leaders of five school districts here, near the Indiana state line, wanted to provide better career preparation than any of them could offer individually and to do it with a keen eye for what their local employers needed.
. They saw that half the jobs in their region required less than a bachelor’s degree. They noted the need for skilled employees in advanced manufacturing and engineering, health care, and technology.
They knew that the big chemical, steel, and glass manufacturers along the nearby Ohio River were hungry for engineers, chemists, and technicians. From surveys, they knew that students worried that they’d go through high school without a single adult offering career advice.
With all that in mind, the districts grabbed a sunny space in a strip mall and opened an “early college” academy that allows students to graduate in four years with a high school diploma in one hand and an associate degree in the other. Some in iLEAD’s first graduating class, in 2019, will also have earned industry-specific credentials.
Students aren’t admitted to iLEAD based on test scores or grades. What matters is their motivation and willingness to work well independently, since iLEAD is a blended-learning environment, with a lot of self-paced, online coursework.
By focusing only on high-wage, high-demand fields, iLEAD aims to do two things at once: feed the regional jobs pipeline and power students out of poverty.
In these communities, median household income hovers around $45,000, well below the national average of $59,000. Only 1 in 10 adults has a bachelor’s degree. Some iLEAD students grapple with periods of homelessness or hunger. Others work to support unemployed or drug-addicted parents. Teachers report that when some students share their college dreams with their parents, they are scolded for acting “above their raisin’.”
“Students need [career] pathways that will be cycle-breaking for them,” said iLEAD director Larisa McKinney, referring to the cycle of poverty and low educational attainment that can bleed from one generation into the next.
Plans to break those cycles begin with the ILP. That’s the “individualized learning plan” all Kentucky students must compose in 8th grade and revise as they move through school. It blends an interest inventory with career planning and course scheduling.
In many schools, updating the ILP is a quick, check-the-box exercise. At iLEAD, it’s a turbocharged examination of each student’s latest career ideas, with their attendant salaries, degree requirements, and job prospects.
On a recent afternoon in iLEAD’s big, sunny, main room, McKinney and Aubrey New, an 11th grader, reviewed Aubrey’s ILP. She came to iLEAD thinking about engineering, but quickly soured on it, and is now exploring the medical field.
Side by side on their laptops, she and McKinney follow links built into the ILP to explore labor-market data on how much nurses, physical therapists, radiologists, and pediatricians earn, and what degrees each job requires.
McKinney, who serves as iLEAD’s director and its biology teacher, replicates this process with all 97 students in the school twice a year.
Otilio Flores wants a job managing high-tech equipment on the manufacturing line at nearby Dow Chemical or North American Stainless. The 16-year-old knows from labor-market numbers that with an industry certification—which he proudly whips out of his wallet—and an associate degree, in a few years he’ll earn more than his parents, Mexican immigrants who work at a local warehouse.
Storm Mitchell, 17, is studying robotics and has her sights on a job with a company that dispatches technicians all over the world to solve manufacturing-line problems. “I love to see how I can get things to work when I code them right,” she said with a grin. The daughter of a mechanic and a cleaning lady, Storm knows robotics expertise is in demand, and she’s happy that she can anticipate earning $50,000 or more when she enters the field.
How Numbers Shape a School
Job-market data don’t only inform students’ career planning at iLEAD. They shape the entire school. They help McKinney and her staff decide what courses to teach, which job-shadows to arrange for students, which businesspeople to invite as class speakers.
Procuring much of the data is Alicia Sells, the director of innovation for the Ohio Valley Education Cooperative, the education-service agency that helped launch iLEAD. She spends much of her time on websites crammed with information about the earnings and education required in Kentucky for each job type and where—and whether—it’s in demand.
On a recent afternoon, she hunted down information to help her decide whether iLEAD should offer a course of study in aerospace engineering. Some students had lobbied for it. But online, Sells doesn’t find encouragement.
The numbers show promising earnings: $90,000 to $110,000 annually. But demand lags. Data projections show likely openings for only 38 aerospace engineers in Northern Kentucky in the next three months. By contrast, 321 mechanical engineers will be needed.
“That 38 makes me nervous when I think about adding an aerospace pathway,” Sells said. “But it makes me feel good that we have a pathway in mechanical engineering.”
The school’s obsession with labor-market data is well known 50 miles away, in the state capital of Frankfort.
“We hear from maybe a few schools in the state, but they’re the most aggressive about it, and I mean that in a good way,” said Kate Akers, the executive director of the state-run Kentucky Center for Education and Workforce Statistics. Akers said Sells calls and emails her frequently to make sense of the data.
A vital piece of iLEAD’s work is making sure that students’ chosen career pathways translate into college degrees. That job falls to Erica Klimchak, the school’s “student advocate.”
She serves as the liaison to Jefferson Community and Technical College, where iLEAD students study full time once they’re juniors. She makes sure students are getting the courses they need to earn associate degrees. She works out agreements with state universities so students’ credits transfer to four-year programs. Klimchak also builds the school’s network of business partnerships and sets up work-based-learning opportunities for students.
Nationally, some advocates have voiced concern that as policymakers push for one- and two-year training programs to build the workforce, students—especially low-income and minority students—could lose out on the value of a bachelor’s degree.
Sen. Michael Bennet, a former superintendent of the Denver schools,at a meeting of CEOs from the Business Roundtable to promote the promise of apprenticeships in the District of Columbia last year.
“There’s a lot of cheap talk about how not everyone has to go to college, and usually they’re talking about someone else’s kid,” Bennet said.
McKinney and Sells, at iLEAD, feel they’re on solid ground in not pushing every student to earn a bachelor’s degree. Why encourage a student to earn a bachelor’s degree to work as a computer-network specialist, they argue, when Kentucky data show that they can earn nearly as much with only an associate degree?
On the other hand, some jobs offer a huge pay differential with a four-year degree, and students need to know that as well.
“The difference between what we’re doing here and the old days of tracking is that adults are using good data to help students understand what works for them,” Sells said. “Those choices aren’t being made for them based on their skin color or family background.
“Information is power for these students.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2018 edition of Education Week as Facing Hard Facts on College and Career