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How Innovators Are Bridging Gaps Between Classrooms and Jobs

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This post is by Bryant Best, who works in the Innovation Lab Network for the Council of Chief State School Officers. Find him on Twitter @dr_bryantbest.

What if I told you that the land of the American Dream has over 5.5 million job openings that employers are desperate to fill? And what if I told you that young, educated people are hungry to start their careers and their own American Dream, only to find out that they don't have the credentials necessary to begin?

Some might say that there is a skills gap. Others might say there is an opportunity gap. Whatever the case, one thing is clear: Educators and industry leaders aren't communicating on what needs to be done to prepare our students for high-demand, high-wage jobs. And last month, Jobs for the Future hosted a summit to address just that.

Jobs for the Future is a national nonprofit committed to providing educational and economic opportunities for every American by way of innovative career pathways, policies, and resources that lead to more college and career ready individuals, a highly skilled workforce, and overall economic growth. In June 2016, the organization hosted a national summit in New Orleans, Louisiana titled "Voices for Opportunity and Economic Mobility." At this summit, more than 650 employers, educators, policymakers and researchers convened to discuss key issues that arise in this work and real solutions to solve them. 

As an education professional who is extremely passionate about empowering traditionally underserved communities, I was particularly intrigued by and honestly a bit skeptical of some of the session titles and descriptions. Are these presenters going to speak on the true "barriers to economic mobility" or will they blow smoke? Is it feasible to consider "tax policy as a means of generating wealth for all Americans" or will the session takeaway amount to a promising idea that requires further exploration? Have these national experts really found new ways to "braid federal, state, and private funding to support local innovative career pathways" or will the suggestions provided fall short as district and school leaders hang their heads in defeat?

Let me be the first to say that this summit did not disappoint.

One compelling breakout discussed how to build Cybersecurity pathways in high school and college. Cybersecurity is a high-demand, high-wage field that is expected to have approximately 1.5 million new job openings within the next four years. With this in mind, Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) and Information Technology (IT) instructors at Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School (Monty Tech) are teaming up to offer their students cybersecurity boot camps that will prepare them to later become Information Security Officers, Cyber Threat Analysts, and even Behavioral Analysts, all while teaching them the critical deeper learning skills of effective communication, collaboration, and an academic mindset. Not only is Monty Tech committed to developing a set of Cybersecurity Competencies that are specific to individual fields such as health and finance, but its students regularly compete in CyberPatriot, a national youth cyber education program and competition hosted by the Air Force Association. Monty Tech students are so immersed in the opportunities the competition provides that they have, in the past, used their first place prize money to further their own education in the field. In addition to engaging in a national network of cyber education professionals and future professionals, Monty Tech students also have the opportunity to earn industry-recognized certifications in computer service and website development programs, such as A+ and CIW, that prepare them for both college and career.

Similarly, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice (JJC) offers a major in Computer Science and Information Security, along with technology-focused career advising and a credit-bearing, semester-long Virtual Internship co-taught by JJC faculty and a professional in the field, such as an employee at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The internship gives students opportunities to perform real-world risk assessments that help reputable companies maintain best practices of security while simultaneously building up the student's digital portfolio.  Industry mentors from firms such as Morgan Stanley and BlackRock provide continuous, personalized feedback to students, and students commonly conclude their internship with a notable reference, resume support, and a series of mock interviews. With all this in place, it's no wonder that approximately half of JJC graduates go on to work in public service such as the New York Police Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Office of the District Attorney. Considering the fact that 50 percent of JJC's students are the first in their family to go to college and that 80 percent of JJC students graduate debt-free, these are the types of partnerships that move the needle on economic mobility. And with programs like GenCyber offering generous amounts of funding and support to Cybersecurity enthusiasts--students and teachers alike--this pathway shows tons of promise.

So once a district or state leader has a promising pathway to invest in, how does he or she bring it to scale? This question was answered in a different breakout, using examples from two Pathways to Prosperity (P2P) states. In Tennessee, education stakeholders desired to help students better meet industry needs. So they created several statewide pathway initiatives, including the Tennessee Promise, Tennessee Leap, and Workforce 360. Collectively, these and other programs arrange for students to receive up to two years of free community college education, learn the skills employers need most, and hit the workforce running. Tennessee has maximized program effectiveness by establishing communities that include stakeholders in K-12 education, the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, and the Tennessee Business Roundtable.

Delaware, another P2P state, is also a recipient of the New Skills for Youth grant awarded by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). Delaware has a statewide focus on credentialing work experience that addresses specific employer needs and funding to further the education of high school graduates, courtesy of state Gov. Jack Markell. Since beginning this work, the state has hosted two Pathways Conferences and is in the process of developing a strategic plan that incorporates feedback from educators, employers and the general public. Delaware's next steps include creating a public funding structure for the pathways system, implementing summer training programs for career and technical education teachers, and developing a policy framework to scale work-based learning.

The Innovation Lab Network at CCSSO also works with states to tackle issues of college and career readiness. One example is our working group on Career Readiness and Competency Based Education (CBE), which will give state leaders a chance to convene and discuss how to best define career pathways in terms of competencies, integrate academic and career pathways, and ensure the accessibility and quality of career ready models of teaching and learning. Those interested in promoting career readiness within their state, district, or school are encouraged to connect with organizations such as CCSSO and JFF.  

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