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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

5 Ways Rural School Leaders Can Create Workforce Opportunities for Students

By Charles V. Khoury — February 14, 2022 5 min read
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While jobs returned at high rates in 2021, most of that growth was experienced in metropolitan areas. Unfortunately, rural America in April 2021 had essentially the same number of jobs as in 2010, and that’s bad news for the nearly 1 in 5 students in the United States who attend a rural school and will thus be much more likely to miss out on high-quality, work-based learning opportunities.

Aside from fewer industry partners to team up with, rural districts face a slew of challenges in providing work-based experiences for students. The smaller industries or industrial communities typically found in rural areas mean that employer partners require disparate skill sets, making it difficult to standardize on a curriculum. The distances between school and work and home can create transportation headaches for individuals and especially at scale.

These opportunities mean access to better jobs for students, which in turn means economic security and prosperity for students and their families. For communities, these opportunities mean that policy and business leaders are able to plan for and recover from economic transitions by supporting workforce-development activities that prepare eligible participants for good jobs in high-demand occupations aligned with state, regional, or community economic-development strategy.

With all that and more on the line, of course rural schools want to partner with local business leaders to prepare students to productively join the workforce in their local communities, despite the challenges. Here’s how they can do it.

Clearly Articulate Your Vision

It is incredibly important that school leadership have clear goals about the purpose of work-based learning opportunities to improve students’ short- and long-term success. It was my hope right from the very beginning that we could create an opportunity to change the lives and educational trajectories of students. We knew that we were creating an educational experience that had to be meaningful for students who were not always engaged in typical classroom activities. But we never believed that these students weren’t capable of achieving great things. Leaders should be intentional to create programs that not only ensure students are employable, but that they will be good humans who will be successful in a global economy.

Get the Lay of the Land

To truly create meaningful pathways to careers, school leaders need to understand what local industries are growing and which industries provide salaries and benefits that will ensure students can build stability and security in their careers. Additionally, it is helpful to review Bureau of Labor data to understand long-term growth potential in these careers. From there, it is helpful to meet with each of those key industry leaders in the community to better understand what skills are required for employment and start to map which skills are transferable among different industries. In rural communities, “industry” is often quite varied. School leaders really need to become fluent and flexible in trying to stitch together core skill sets into a high-quality curriculum that will allow students to have the greatest opportunity to find meaningful employment across as many industries, and organizations within those industries, as possible.

Bring Partners Together

Before you get started, you’ll need to bring all your partners from industry, higher ed., and economic development together in one room. Everyone needs to commit to the vision as well as the time required.

A great place to look for partners is to find organizations already associated with career-tech programs in schools. Many states require that industry partners serve on advisory boards, so digging into those can turn up a lot of leads on potential partners for your program.

Another good starting place is to expand the relationships or programs you’ve already built. Perhaps your school has an engineering program, for example, where students work on engines for large machinery. School leaders could expand that program to deliver a mechanical engineering certificate to students who complete the program.

If there are no relationships with business leaders already established, refer back to your local industry map. Identify unifying skills across two or three primary industries and then reach out to local representatives of those industries. Tell them what you’re trying to do and directly ask them for their input and expertise in training your students for future employment.

Co-Create the Curriculum

The curriculum is not meant to be orientation or training for a job. The curriculum should reflect what employers need, the skills students will need to be successful whether they join the workforce or go to college, and what credentials are necessary for both groups. From there, high-quality, highly engaging learning experiences can be built.

Among the partners, district leaders are the closest to the students, so their role in co-creation is to ensure that students will be engaged and that they can master skills that align with high school graduation requirements. Higher education partners should advise how those skills can stack and help students progress toward degree or certificate requirements. Industry partners can provide invaluable insights into how those skills are used in real-world situations, so that the program can be infused with meaningful and engaging project-based-learning opportunities.

Make Sure Staff Are Dedicated and Enthusiastic

Set expectations with your industry partners about the style of teaching needed to create meaningful learning experiences for students. Be ready to guide students and their mentors through project-based-learning experiences and make sure you’re flexible enough to turn your business partners’ challenges into learning opportunities.

For example, on one of our employer-driven projects, a manufacturer was operating in a foreign country without ready access to water. In addition to learning about the mechanics of the industry, our students also gained experience in solving complex environmental challenges.

Rural districts certainly face additional challenges in providing high-quality, work-based learning opportunities, but they tend to be the exact inverse of the challenges their local businesses face in finding high-quality employees. In the end, the solutions are to be found in partnering with them and building community together.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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