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Opinion: How to build the school-to-work pipeline

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With the recent shifts in workforce through the “Great Resignation,” employers are experiencing the need for a broader school-to-work pipeline. Truth is, employers will always need employees with better employability skills. Likewise, schools want to graduate students with great communication, customer service and core competencies. Thus, the result is a symbiotic relationship of business and education.

Gov. Mike Parson in his State of the State address called for more business and school partnerships. The Missouri Board of Education identified workforce development as priority area for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The legislative priorities include “supporting policies focused on developing intrapersonal and interpersonal skills for students that build resilience and employability” and “requiring the use of an integrated advising system that connects career advising with academic support consistently across secondary and postsecondary institutions.”

School systems across Missouri are finding creative ways to partner with businesses to satisfy the needs of industry, nonprofits, governments and education.

Building blocks
Schools are responding in a few ways:

  1. Work-based learning. Work-based learning programs are partnerships between industry and schools to allow experiential learning that ranges from advisory roles to immersive on-site learning. Schools are using business partnerships to bring relevance to student learning and to provide opportunities for application in real-world scenarios and practice of work-ready skills. Industry partners serve as advisory panel members, guest speakers, hosts for field trips, job shadows, internships and apprenticeships.
  2. Place-based education. A strong collaborative connection of school and industry is through partnerships for field trips, tours and teacher externships. Students gain understanding of the skills they need for specific industries through touring. Pre-pandemic, CoxHealth allowed Ozark eighth-grade students to experience all aspects of the health care industry. The tour expanded students’ understanding of all the employment opportunities available, from the traditional doctor and nurse to technician, helicopter pilot, dietician, information technology and human resources professionals. Within two hours, students learned more about the health care industry than they would have in hours in a traditional classroom. These hands-on/eyes-on experiences of industry spaces open up a world of possibilities for students.

Students are not the only benefactors of business partnerships. Teachers gain from externships – place-based professional development opportunities for teachers to spend time in industry and learn through direct experiences. They obtain valuable insight into industry soft skills and the integration of skill-based education with traditional knowledge-based learning. Externships are a great way to grow relevant connections and bridges to successful ready skills.

  1. Interns and apprentices. Internships, micro-internships and apprenticeships can be a large step toward work readiness and for students to understand their next steps after graduation. Students gain insight into future work opportunities as well as valuable work experience through internships.

Internships can be unpaid or paid; either way, the true payoff is the professional skills students learn. Internships work well on college scholarships and as beginning resume builders. Internships are typically a semester or two in length but reap long-term benefits.
For some industry partners, apprenticeships are great for teaching specific work-ready skills and to begin a relationship with novice employees. There is a large movement toward apprenticeship and high school programs all over the country: The Texas Youth Apprenticeship Partnership, Career Launch Chicago and CareerWise in multiple states. Each program is trying to match student interest while creating a talent pipeline into industry.

Barriers and ROI
School districts are working to overcome natural barriers of background checks, privacy issues and proprietary concerns. As Ozark High School is expanding into the Ozark Innovation Center and the academy model, business partners are helping us work through these issues. We realize these partnerships serve as an economic engine. Solutions such as agreement forms, student “employee onboarding” and training play an important role in overcoming the challenges. Helping solidify a student’s career choice or narrowing interest is worth the collaboration.

School partnerships with nonprofits, governmental agencies and industry are a win for the community, but more importantly, for the student. The return on investment can be measured in student success, employer satisfaction and stronger community bonds.

Craig Carson is assistant superintendent of learning for Ozark R-VI Schools. He can be reached at craigcarson@ozarktigers.org.

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