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December 29, 2020

Building Student Skills In and Out of the Workforce: Panels with Experts in K-12, College, and Adult Students

From early career exploration programs for young students to retraining and re-skilling workshops for adults in their careers, institutions are finding ways to incorporate skills training in and out of the classroom for students and workers of all ages. College Promise hosted conversations with experts from institutions serving K-12 students, college students, and adults in the workforce.

K-12 Students

Students are exploring career pathways earlier and earlier through work opportunities in and out of the classroom. These programs offer young people the chance to gain the abilities and training necessary to succeed as they transition to adulthood and careers.

Lisette Nieves, President of the Fund for the City of New York, led a conversation about early career pathway programs and how they are helping young students. She was joined by Makeda Vela, Assistant Chief Grants Administrator for the City of Los Angeles’ Economic and Workforce Development Department, Vanessa Weatherington, Deputy Director of Workforce & Federal Programs for D.C. Department  of Employment Services, and Spencer Sherman, Director of the Office of College & Career Readiness at the Rhode Island Department of Education.

Makeda Vela shared how the city of Los Angeles is approaching skill building for children. “We found that it was really important to develop our young people, tying in the academics and the workforce development. How do you do that, what are you building upon? It's not just about the traditional skills that they build through their core educational programs, but looking at those core skills that are needed to be transferable to the workforce,” she said. Los Angeles is approaching this with a program for students ages 14 through 24, where they focus on work readiness and soft skills like building teamwork, time management, and organization. “And we explicitly, through our modules that we utilize for our young people, are helping them to make those connections as they move through not just their academics, but as they're in the community socializing,” added Vela.

Another necessity for skill-building, said Spencer Sherman, is to focus on their parents as well. “It is a key part of our theory of action for how you better serve kids is to empower kids and empower parents by giving them the tools they need,” he said. This is important to help parents understand what information they need to navigate the systems of education and workforce preparation, adding “It is really not intuitive to navigate these systems and as a result, if we don't make active efforts towards educating parents on how to navigate the systems and make them really easy to navigate, then we're only going to privilege the most privileged people in our society.” If systems created for making education and training for children more accessible are not intuitive and easy to use, Sherman cautions that they will just reinforce systems of inequity, rather than undermine them.

Vanessa Weatherington highlighted the necessity of teaching work readiness and giving students the opportunity to put it into practice. She says that passing a written test on soft skills, for example, might not always transfer over when it’s time to actually show up to work. By going to work, Weatherington says, “you realize what it means, day in and day out. Putting it into practice is important.” She signaled to systems such as summer youth employment programs and year-round internship and externship. “These programs have really helped us drive home the importance of putting things into practice for both young people and their families. It takes a village, so we do have a lot of parents who call, and they advocate for their young people,” Weatherington said, adding that it is important to include parents and families in their children’s education and training.

College Students

Colleges around the country are offering students support targeted explicitly for career success. From career counseling to co-op programs, these supports are ensuring that students are ready for hire.

Keisha Taylor, Senior Director of Postsecondary & Partnership Engagement at NAF, discussed ways that institutions are helping college students build the skills they need for the workforce. She was joined by Norma Guerra Gaier, Executive Director of Texas Career Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin, and Andrés Cuervo, Program Manager at L.A. College Promise Works’ Workforce Development & Education for the Office of Mayor Eric Garcetti, City of Los Angeles.

Andrés Cuervo highlighted the importance of programs that will help students build skills and the necessity of those programs in reflecting the student populations they serve. Los Angeles considers this  with their programs “Something that's happening in tangent with COVID-19 has been the push for social racial justice in America, and I think as we launched these programs, we were being very mindful of how we serve our students in a really dedicated and earnest way,” he said. The majority of students they serve are Latinx and Black, 90% and 34% respectively.

So how do institutions make sure their programs are designed best for the specific students they serve? Cuervo says sensitivity is critical. “Our team we wanted to make sure to bring on board coaches that had the sensitivity to work with students from low-income backgrounds, had the experience of working with students of color, knew how to talk to students that are formerly homeless, queer, and/or undocumented,” he said. “We wanted to make sure that our team and our program, especially when we're coaching them to succeed in careers, that they feel listened to and helped in a way that is dignified and honors their own experiences.”

Norma Guerra Gaier, like Cuervo, thinks equity is the most important foundation. “Our work is really centered on equitable access, so we have a heavy focus on DNI in all of the work that we do,” she said. Guerra Gaier shared ways that the University of Texas at Austin has established career engagement on their campus to support all students’ career awareness and success, called Texas Career Engagement. She explained, “Our career education model is set up in quite a different way than most career centers where they might have career coaches and career counselors who are focused on specific industries or working with certain majors. At Texas Career Engagement, we've really strayed away from that model and instead have determined that there are specific identities that need a different level of support.”

Their models are specifically and uniquely created to assist specific populations of students, including first-generation college students, veterans students, students who have disabilities, LGBTQ students, and students of color. “We actually have designed our career education model to focus on our students who have different identities or intersecting identities, and we have found that there are certain resources and support systems that need to be in place in order to help those students be most successful and most comfortable in that career awareness and career journey that they're going to engage in,” Guerra Gaier explained, doubling down on the importance of individualized programs that are conscious of students and their individual needs.

Adult Students

Adults in the workforce are increasingly seeking additional education as they progress through their careers. As a result, job retraining, reskilling, and upskilling are essential parts of a robust educational system. Many programs are working to ensure they create opportunities and pathways for adults to achieve their academic goals while recognizing how adult learners differ from “traditional” high school-to-college students.

Betty Rhoades, Executive Director of HillVets, facilitated a discussion about these existent and emerging pathways. She spoke with Connor Diemand-Yauman, Co-CEO of Merit America, and Toya Pokolo, a Merit America Participant, about their thoughts and experiences.

Connor Diemand-Yauman says one of the best ways that programs can support adult learners is to make it clear that pathways exist for them. “We do not make it easy on adult learners in this country; we invest our training dollars and our education dollars in K-12 and the implicit statement that we're making to middle-skill, low-wage workers across the country, folks without a bachelor's degree, is that we may not have supported you, but the best thing we can do for you is we can help train your children,” he said. Because of national chronic underinvestment in adult learning programs, Diemand-Yauman says, a number of talented Americans across the country consequently don't know that pathways exist. He gave actionable advice, adding that, “What we can do for adult learners is to focus on their communities, the people who they interact with regularly, and allow them to see the opportunities that exist with people who are like them.”

Toya Pokolo, a Merit America participant, shared her story and how Merit America helped her navigate pathways. “I was at the point in my life where I thought I just could not move in the career I was in. I was in a banking career for about 13 years, and I felt I was stuck, so I was looking for something to do where I did not have to have a degree, because I did not have one,” she said. Pokolo found Merit America while searching the internet for opportunities to find new career paths. “I didn't believe it at all; it just seemed like it was too good to be true. But once I got accepted into the program, they were teaching me things that I didn't learn in the few years that I did go to college, and that's one of the reasons why I stuck with it. The program was different from anything I've ever encountered previously.”

This blog post is part of a series of recordings from the College Promise Careers Institute. In November 2020, College Promise held the virtual 3-day summit convening hundreds of our nation's leading practitioners, educators, employers, and thought leaders for sessions tackling the most complex challenges American workers face -- from the rise of artificial intelligence to the role free college plays in maintaining a competitive edge.

Want to learn about upcoming College Promise events? Sign up for our monthly newsletter, State of the Promise.

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