High school students, their parents, and potential employers seem to agree on one important issue — high schoolers are not well prepared to enter the workforce after they graduate.

Only 15 percent of teenagers questioned for a recent national survey believe their high school prepares them “very well” to enter the workforce after graduation, while 37 percent believe they are “somewhat well prepared” by their school, according to the Visions of the Future survey conducted on behalf of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

Parents and employers are even more concerned. Only 43 percent of adults agree with that assessment by high school students.

So where does that leave the students? How do you prepare them for a career path?

“Cultivating a culture within schools to foster employability skills…and providing new insights and information on how to navigate the future will be essential for the growth and development of a new generation of change-makers,” concludes the study.

That conclusion is echoed by the foundation’s vice president of education.

“Our education system must prepare students for learning, work, and life after high school in a rapidly-changing world, which means the time to provide real-world learning opportunities — for all students — is now,” writes Aaron North.

State-run program builds a career pathway

A program in Rhode Island appears to be addressing these needs already, by starting career conversations and complementary curriculum as early as elementary school. It’s a statewide program called PrepareRI, launched in 2016 as an initiative by Governor Gina Raimondo.

“It started from a New Skills for Youth grant,” says Meg Geoghegan, communications director for the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE). “Governor Raimondo went to D.C. to make the pitch for Rhode Island and it was a huge selling point. She was seeing a skills gap between what students are learning in the classroom and what they’re leaving schools prepared to do.”

Every student in Rhode Island — yes, every student — is eligible to participate, although they’re not required to do so. The goal is to create pathways from the time they begin school all the way to high school graduation, through coursework and real-world experience. The pathway programs are aligned to high-demand career fields, including those mentioned in the Kauffman Foundation survey.

Individualized goals

RIDE worked backward to create the pathways, says Spencer Sherman, director of the Office of College and Career Readiness for RIDE. Meaning, each participating student works with their school counselor on an individual learning plan that starts with, “What kind of job do I want?”

The counselor works with the students to plan for classes at each grade that are relevant to the job, summer programs that might be available for hands-on experience, and partnership opportunities with local colleges for classes that might not be available at the high school.

“Every student has a counselor who helps them think about careers early. We’re not locking them into pathways. There are a lot of onramps and offramps, but when a student can see how math in sixth grade relates to a passion, you can see a big difference. There’s a lot more depth by the time they get to high school,” Sherman says.

Employers help guide curriculum

Prepare RI created a board that represents industry and schools. So, rather than the Department of Education dictating what students need, employers help develop standards and programs that are taught in the classrooms. In elementary schools, there is an initiative underway to have a computer science program in every school. In middle school, career exploration begins.

Industry partners help students learn about jobs they might not know exist and breaks down stereotypes of who can have those kinds of jobs. (“I can be an astronaut, or doctor — someone who looks like me,” explains Sherman.)

Experiential learning and coaching

The Kauffman study found that employers see experiences such as internships and a technical certificate as more influential in making a hiring decision than a college or high school degree. They also ranked skills such as communication, work-ethic, self-determination, creativity, and problem solving extremely high.

To fulfill those needs, high school juniors in PrepareRI can do internships. They have an opportunity to work in fields such as STEM, IT, manufacturing, construction, health care, and the marine trades with companies including Bank of America, Citizens Bank, and CVS.

And because these are professional jobs, students must apply through a formal process. They must create a resume which members of PrepareRI help edit, emphasizing their skills over their diplomas.

What Can PrepareRI Do With a Resume?

They must go through interviews. Companies send representatives to coach students through the process — not from the organization’s philanthropic department, but from their human resources department. Even students who get rejections have found the process helpful, Sherman says.

Before students start their internships, they attend a week-long boot camp led by industry professionals who teach how to problem-solve as a group. Because it’s likely the first time any of these students have worked in an office, they learn how to interact in a professional setting, how to talk about their strengths and how to handle conflict resolution. There’s also a networking lunch — much like the kind adult jobseekers would attend — that gives the students a chance to shake hands with the state’s largest employers.

The value to employers

“Companies see the internship program as a chance to try these kids out because they’re already coming to the job site. And if they’re doing an extended pilot, they can hire the students when the internship is over,” Geoghegan says.

CVS is an industry partner and has invested in a model pharmacy that looks like the pharmacy you would see at any of its stores at Davies Career and Technical High School. Students can train as a pharmaceutical technician in an environment that is a real-life mock-up.

“We didn’t have to sell industry on the value,” Geoghegan says. “They came and have been excited to be engaged because for many years they’ve been saying, ‘Kids are graduating and don’t have skills relevant to us.’ We know businesses, when looking to move here, are looking at the talent pipeline. It makes sense for our economy. It’s a win-win for everybody.”

From intern to employee with a possible step in between

PrepareRI’s program doesn’t dismiss or eliminate college education as part of a career pathway. Through its advance course network (ACN), students can take online classes so they can continue to work. Its dual enrollment program gives students access to coursework at any public university, so students can start earning college credits before they finish high school for free. Through internships, students are developing relationships that could lead to post-graduation employment, from high school or after they earn their college degrees.

As the PrepareRI program is still in its infancy, RIDE is starting to connect data to follow participants for the next 10 years to see if they complete their pathways to employment. An early report shows a 60 percent growth in career education, and the number of dual and concurrent enrollment (high school and college) is even higher, says Geoghegan. But the biggest early success indicator, she says, is that more organizations are seeking out PrepareRI to help meet their future employment needs.

“PrepareRI is something people are more familiar with and industry is starting to recognize it needs to be involved. The North Kingstown Chamber of Commerce approached us because it works with companies that make equipment for wind turbines.

Rhode Island has the first offshore wind farm in the country, and they said, ‘We need to get into the program because it’ll explode. How do we get in on the ground level?’,” she says. “We’re excited to see this spark happen and people are starting to know they need to look to K-12 to make sure they have talent applicants to grow.”

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