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Addressing the Skills Gap Through After-School and Summer Programs

As we continue to celebrate CTE month, we should not forget about the potential that high-quality afterschool and summer programs have to help youth develop the skills needed to successfully fill the skills gap. Alli Lidie, the policy and communications coordinator at New York State Afterschool Network, an organization that advocates on behalf of youth and families and provides resources to improve the quality of existing afterschool programs, shares advice and resources.  

By guest blogger Alli Lidie 

In the United States, there is a large and ever-widening gap between the skills unemployed individuals possess and those that companies need to fill vacancies. While the skills gap is an issue that extends far beyond New York State, a 2013 report by America's Edge New York, "Ensuring the Capital Region's Global Success," highlighted the Capital Region as a particularly clear example of this gap. Despite high rates of unemployment, an alarming 82 percent of local manufacturers struggle to find qualified employees. These middle-skill positions, many with a STEM-focus, require workers with some post-secondary education but not a four-year college degree and have a median income of almost $77,000. These should be appealing options for youth to consider. So, what can be done to get them interested?

In order to be prepared for these manufacturing positions and others, the next generation of workers needs a number of targeted supports. They need to be exposed to experiences and opportunities that spark their interest and love of learning, motivating them to pursue a 21st century career. They need chances to work with adults and peers to develop the essential skills of communication, teamwork, grit, global competence, and perseverance that will allow them to succeed in their chosen field. Lastly, they need supportive adults to encourage them along the way. 

Directly addressing the issue of the skills gap, our "Workforce Development in Afterschool Prepares Youth for the 21st Century" issue brief highlights the need for essential skills for success in the 21st century. Nationally, 75 percent of executives believe that essential skills will become more important in the next three to five years because of global competition and the rapid pace with which current businesses change. Unfortunately, a large percentage of youth who are preparing to enter the workforce lack the skills needed to become effective employees and managers.

This is where afterschool and summer programs come in. By providing youth with extra time that is free from the rigidity of the school day and allows for project-based, hands-on learning that is fun and engaging, afterschool programs allow students to work on the kinds of long-term projects that research suggests might be the most important way to prepare them for the reality of college and the workforce. Such project-based learning can enhance communications and teamwork skills, as well as teach organizational and self-regulation skills. Afterschool programs can also expose students to career options they might otherwise have never known about or considered. 

Back to New York's Capital Region: in order for those available manufacturing positions to be filled, youth need to be interested in STEM by the beginning of high school to ensure they take the required math and science courses by graduation. One innovative program that is tackling this challenge is the Girls, Inc. Eureka!®  Program at the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (CSNE) in Albany. Starting in 8th grade and going through their senior year of high school, the program works to spark girls' interest in STEM, thus propelling them to careers in scientific and technical fields. During the first two summers, girls participate in STEM education through nanoscale science and workforce development at CNSE, in addition to participating in sports and team-building activities. In the following summers, participants are placed in internships that allow them to utilize the skills they have developed through the program in a real-world way. In addition to internships, girls participate in specialized activities throughout the school year that further build their confidence in STEM and their leadership skills.

According to a survey conducted by the national Eureka!® program, nearly 75% of participating girls listed STEM or STEM-related careers as potential plans for their future after their second year.  This Girls, Inc. and CNSE partnership has found a way to interest girls in the careers that will be available to them when they graduate—and this program is just one example of many that are working to combat the skills gap across New York. 

While there are many great programs working to prepare youth for these 21st century jobs, more afterschool and summer opportunities are needed to support all of those who need to get their feet on the ladder to success. There are many strategies that stakeholders can use to promote the effectiveness of out-of-school-time programs to fully engage youth on the path to 21st century careers:

  • Use our issue brief "Workforce Development in Afterschool Prepares Youth for the 21st Century" and this infographic, Expanded Learning & Afterschool Programs Help Students Become College & Career Ready, to advocate for additional funding for afterschool and summer programs from policymakers, local funders, and businesses.
  • Share the issue brief with teachers, parents, and students to encourage participation in afterschool and summer programs as a strategy to prepare for future careers.
  • Encourage existing afterschool and summer programs to plan activities that intentionally engage youth in areas contributing to the skills gap in their area. For programs particularly interested in STEM, there are many resources to utilize, including STEM After School.
  • Connect schools with local community partners that are providing or could provide targeted afterschool and summer programming for their students, and promote high-quality partnerships using resources available in the School-Community Partnerships Guidebook.

As more youth gain access to these out-of-school experiences, employers will be more able to find qualified workers, youth will be more prepared for the workforce they enter, and communities across the nation will see the benefits of a shrinking skills gap.

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