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School-to-Work Programs: An Overlooked Option for Staffing Needs

Sociologists are already predicting that tomorrow’s workforce will look considerably different than today’s, thanks mainly to an aging population.

By K. Schipper

Immigrants and Baby Boomers willing to work into their retirement years offer a partial answer, but many sign shops are already finding it difficult to get good employees, whether the need is for someone to man the phones for a few busy hours or a skilled computer operator.

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  • While not everyone is enthusiastic about the idea of taking a chance on young people ­ especially if they have teenagers of their own ­ there are ways of tapping into a pool of often-eager high school or college students who are looking for more than just an easy way to earn a few bucks.

    Many schools offer programs that encourage their students to gain real life experience in what they’re learning in the classroom. Connect with the right program and you may begin a relationship that translates into gaining a full time employee once school is finished.

    Common Refrain

    Pay attention to news from education long enough and you’ll likely run into someone touting the idea that schools need to do more to get students real world experience, regardless of their career goals.

    It’s an idea that waxes and wanes in popularity. The most recent effort by the federal government to that end was the 1994 School to Work Initiative. It provided federal funds to the states to develop systems to connect education and the needs of the economy.

    Although the legislation expired in 2000 and federal funds are no longer committed to the initiative, during the time money was available, all 50 states and the territories developed such programs. And, many of them have continued them to varying degrees.

    Iowa is one state where interest in school-to-work has remained strong. Laurie Phelan, director of the Iowa School to Work in Des Moines, Iowa, says the national legislation charged the states with doing three things:

    “The first was school-based learning, meaning classroom education should provide some relevance between math, science, reading and the real world,” she explains. “A second was a work-based component, meaning students should have the opportunity to get real work experience. The third was making sure we use the resources and support of the community to accomplish items one and two.”

    In Iowa’s case, Phelan says a great deal of emphasis was put on the third area. That meant involving business and labor, parents and students, as well as organizations that provide support for youth. Consequently, she thinks the program has continued because by involving those groups support and funding have come from the state’s departments of education, workforce and economic development, plus the state association of business and industry.

    Rhode Island is another state where the program has continued to thrive. Linda Soderberg, director of the School to Career Initiative, based in Providence, R.I., says there the emphasis is not on education as much as economic development.

    Soderberg came to her job with a background in economic development, and she says the state has put a lot of emphasis on the development of industry-specific partnerships or clusters. Rhode Island currently has partnerships in place or in development for 10 broad career fields. These groups offer input and advice to state officials on what students entering their fields need to learn in school as well as with that their industries can do to enhance the education process.

    Soderberg likes the approach because it gives industries specific goals to work on without making them responsible for the whole thing. Based on an industry’s needs members may do anything from arranging facility tours to helping set technical standards for that particular industry.

    The partnerships also provide contacts so that a business isn’t inundated with requests for help from several directions. “One of the things we heard from industry is, ‘I have a business to run,’” Soderberg says. “If a company says, ‘We’ll do job shadowing and provide 15 internships and five teacher externships,’ when that limit is reached the broker knows to no longer send participants to that business.”

    One thing these programs aren’t designed to do is to track students ­ especially those who aren’t interested in attending college ­ into lower paying jobs. By grouping industries broadly, Soderberg says her state has been able to expose students interested in public safety to careers from police or corporate security officer all the way to federal judge. A teleconference from a hospital operating room let students speak with technicians, nurses and surgeons.

    “Based on what their vision is and what their options might be, there’s a place for every kid who has an interest in that field to find an opportunity,” says Soderberg. “That’s the beauty of these partnerships; we’re not saying, ‘Only talk with the best and the brightest kids.’”

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    Multiple Venues

    Since not all states have developed programs to the extent of Iowa and Rhode Island, it isn’t necessarily easy for business owners to find out what’s going on where they live. However, there are several avenues for the person interested enough to do some calling. Certainly one is the local chamber of commerce. Not only might the chamber have a handle on what local schools are doing for school-to-work programs, but the organization may also be aware of what local non-profit youth groups are doing.

    “And, if there isn’t a partnership situation developed, I think the chamber might be the most likely organization to bring large and small businesses together to develop some long-term workforce development strategies,” says Soderberg. “They may already have some pieces of a system in place that you can use.”

    Another option is to contact your state government, says Iowa’s Phelan. “You probably are talking in terms of work-based learning, and if you’re calling the state you’d probably start in the department of education or department of workforce development,” she says. “Another possibility is to begin with the department of labor or department of economic development or whatever it’s called in a particular state. Then, ask for who’s responsible for youth work-based learning programs.”

    However, she says since part of the School to Work Initiative was to streamline a point of contact for employers with these programs, how much calling is involved may indicate the strength or weakness of a particular state’s efforts.

    Still another venue is to contact the local school district and ask the same sorts of questions. “If I was a small business owner, I’d go directly to the school,” says Phelan. “I’d want to know what their processes were for getting kids into work-based learning experiences, and if there was any way we can build a partnership.”

    She adds that stressing the word, “partnership,” is critical, since that’s the language schools have been using in school-to-work programs and they’re used to talking about designing an experience for kids that’s positive and makes sure they’re ready to enter the workplace when they actually do.

    If the school doesn’t give a positive response, then Phelan advises going back to the state level and finding someone in a position similar to hers who can at least provide some of the materials to start such a program. “There’s no reason to start from scratch,” she says. “There’s so much out there and its quality information.”

    Regardless of the path a business owner ends up taking, Phelan says it’s important for businesses to keep asking the hard questions about school-to-work programs. “We have to keep the energy from the School to Work Initiative alive,” Phelan concludes. “The need has not gone away for the connection between educators and employers and the goal of setting up an employer-driven system needs to be kept alive.”

    Some Tips on Utilizing School-to-Work Students

    • Start by contacting your local high schools, technical or vocational schools or colleges or universities. Students may be interested in filling a variety of positions. For instance, graphic art students may already be trained in the computer programs the shop uses. Business students may want some practical experience in sales or bookkeeping;
    • Be prepared to work with the instructor. Not only will a good instructor visit to watch the student at work and make sure he or she is doing well, but the teacher will also want to talk with the employer or supervisor about any problems that need to be addressed;
    • Be prepared to work with the student. Make certain the student is clear on what his job responsibilities are, but also make the job a learning experience and not just a position to do grunt work during unpopular hours. And, realize the student has other obligations.

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