College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

In Delaware, Creating Career Pathways for Youths

By Robert Rothman — November 02, 2017 4 min read
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What would it take for a state to ensure that students develop the knowledge, skills, and experience they need to be prepared for college and a career? Delaware is taking on that challenge. Under an initiative known as Delaware Pathways, 9,000 high school students are currently taking college classes, working as interns in real jobs, and earning genuine work credentials.

Consider Joe Zecca. While at William Penn High School in New Castle, Delaware, he took classes in technology and engineering at Delaware Technical and Community College (Del Tech) and worked at a manufacturing company the summer before his senior year. By the time he graduated, he wanted to go into the workforce, and he had a lot of options: three companies wanted to hire him. He chose Astra Zeneca, the pharmaceutical company, because he liked the range of equipment they had and the opportunities that were available. There was one catch: Astra Zeneca did not have a job opening, but the company hired him as a consultant until one opened. “They really wanted me,” Joe told me.

I met Joe during the year and a half I spent studying the Delaware initiative under the auspices of the Pathways to Prosperity network, a project organized by Jobs for the Future and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. My full report on Delaware Pathways is here. I came away impressed by the thoughtfulness and care state leaders from education, business, and government have taken in designing and implementing the initiative. They have some challenges, but they are well on their way of attaining their ambitious goal of having half the state’s high school students in career pathways by 2019--just five years after the initiative got under way.

Delaware Pathways was developed to address a skills gap. State officials have projected that the state will need 143,593 new workers by 2024--about the size of the current school population--to replace retirees and meet growth needs. Yet while employers are looking for people to fill the higher-skilled jobs--particularly the so-called “middle-skill” jobs that require some post-secondary training but not a four-year degree--they are finding a shortage of candidates. Middle-skill jobs in Delaware offer an average salary of $44,960 a year, compared with low-skill jobs, which offer an average salary of $26,350 a year.

“There is no more frustrating conversation a governor could have than with an employer who wants to hire people, but can’t find people with the right skills,” former Governor Jack Markell, who launched Delaware Pathways, told me. “There has never been a better time to be a person with the right skills, and no worse time to be somebody without the right skills.”

In response to that concern, Markell brought together leaders from the K-12 sector, higher education, and business to create a system of pathways that would ease the journey to middle-skill jobs in fast-growing, high-paying fields. They began with advanced manufacturing, the pathway Joe Zecca was on, because some groundwork had already been laid. Currently, there are 10 pathways, in fields like engineering, finance, teaching, energy, and health care.

Under the initiative, educators work with employers to develop courses that would enable students to develop the skills they need to prepare for entry-level jobs, and design and implement work-based experiences, such as internships, to give students hands-on experiences in real workplaces. The United Way, a partner in the initiative, coordinates services to support low-income students to enable them to participate fully.

In its short history, Delaware Pathways has moved quickly to put in a place an infrastructure to manage the project and expand it rapidly while keeping an eye on quality. Under an executive order signed by former Governor Markell, the state established a high-level steering committee to oversee the initiative, while a working group meets regularly to share ideas and keep the project moving.

The initiative has also produced some ancillary benefits. Educators say it has accelerated high school reform, by encouraging local districts to develop their own pathways that make school more relevant to adolescents. The initiative has also fostered closer connections between schools, higher education, and businesses, and it has changed expectations for students. “The Pathways work opened the door to rethinking how we think about careers and college,” said Paul Herdman, the president of the Rodel Foundation, a local philanthropy. “It could be a one- or two-year certificate program. Kids [who take that route] are doing just fine or better in terms of income and quality of life. For the 70 percent of people who didn’t finish college, their life choice was validated.”

But the initiative faces challenges as well. While leaders have been successful in raising funds from federal and private sources, they have not yet been able to secure a steady stream of state funds, which are needed to keep it sustained over time. And leaders are finding that too few high school students have the knowledge and skills necessary for college coursework. They have created a program to accelerate learning in English language arts and plan a similar program in mathematics, but those are stopgaps, state officials concede.

Still, Delaware Pathways has much to show the rest of the nation. The state might not yet be Switzerland, the “gold standard’ for career and technical education, but the Diamond State is off to a promising start.

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