Learning what works: Work-based learning and other effective career strategies

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February is Career and Technical Education (CTE) month, an important recognition in a time when many are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on education and finding out too late they don’t even like the work or there is no realistic chance of payback.

Today, few young adults in the U.S. understand what will be expected of them in the workplace, what careers are in demand, let alone the skills they’ll need to climb the ladder. It plays out in our youth unemploymnent rates, in low college completion rates, and in the startling number of young people who are neither in school nor working.

Why is that? For starters, most learn only in the classroom, divorced from how those lessons will apply to a job, or even better, a career. Fortunately, CTE offers a different route to success but too few young people know about it or participate in high quality programs that connect them to employers. These programs include work-based learning and apprenticeships.

Through our association with Siemens’ businesses, we’ve been fortunate to see the effectivenss of apprenticeships close up. The German and Swiss economies, for example, have benefitted from the consistent training and development opportunities that apprenticeships provide. Creating that system has required, and strengthened, a broad ecosystem of engaged partners, not just one-off programs with individual schools or employers. Those ideas are begining to take hold here, but they aren’t developing fast enough to meet the needs of a struggling middle class and our economy as a whole.

So, how do we accelerate development?

In education, states are the labs of innovation. Committed state leaders have access to the right levers of power to make lasting change. They are closest to the needs of their employers and need their young people to succeed. They know their school systems and their educational leaders like no one else. They see it in the local headlines every day: how it works or doesn’t work for the economies they struggle to build and maintain. And governors can use the power of their office to make things happen. It’s that simple. And those that have taken action are pulling ahead of the pack.

We saw that leadership on display when Governor Herbert announced Talent Ready Utah at Utah’s state of the state address last month. Utah is one of six states participating in a two-year project with our partners at the National Governors Association’s Center for Best Practices (NGA) to expand work-based learning for young people in their states. Utah is learning from its success with Utah Aerospace Pathways and is building an online portal for employers, students and educators to find quality work-based learning experiences.

Iowa’s another great example: Through the Fast Track Iowa’s Future initiative and the Greatness STEMs from Iowans campaign, Iowa is working hard to get the word out to students and parents about the outstanding economic opportunity available through all STEM jobs, including those not requiring a bachelor’s degree. I had the privilege of facilitating a discussion with Iowan Governor Branstad and Lt. Governor Reynolds last year and was amazed at the level of ownership and excitement the two had. For the better part of an hour, they answered detailed questions about the work, noting local leadership and the counties and towns in which the work was being led. States like Iowa are seeing the impact of this work in their communities, their workforce and their economies.

Iowa and Utah are just two examples of how all our state leadership partners (Indiana, Iowa, New Hampshire, Montana, Utah and Washington) are leading the way on work-based learning, a core strategy of many high quality CTE programs.

Other states are also taking notice. Last month, America’s governors included work-based learning and apprenticeships in their 2017 blueprint for new federal leadership, calling for federal tools that can help reach their goals.

Meanwhile, we must confront the real perception challenges we have in attracting America’s youth to CTE programs and work-based learning experiences like apprenticeships. Too few students — and parents — understand the benefit of CTE in the preparation for both college and careers and our talent pipeline suffers as a result. This is why we are partnering with Advance CTE to conduct critical research into the most effective messages for parents and students to encourage them to participate in CTE and apprenticships to get a leg up on their future.

CTE has arrived for more than the month of February and that’s a great thing to celebrate.

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