In June 2021, a collaborative of funders launched the Catalyze Challenge to source innovations to deliver diverse and equitable opportunities for America's students to achieve economic success. Just as adults are facing an unprecedented moment in history, today's students are grappling with challenges, too: rising college tuition, a crushing job market, a global pandemic, and an economic downturn. This innovation challenge will fund and elevate programs that help students navigate the transition from education to employment and empower students to make informed choices about their future
During the recent virtual panel session, “The Catalyze Challenge: A Pathways Innovation Challenge,” at the ASU+GSV Summit 2021, panelists discussed the plan to foster bold and innovative ideas for programs and models that prioritize career exploration and experiential learning inside and outside the classroom, expand knowledge about potential career pathways, and prepare students for lifelong success.
Panelists included George Vinton, CEO, The Common Group (moderator); Eric Chan, Partner, Charter School Growth Fund, an organization finding the country’s best public charter schools, funding their expansion, and helping to increase their impact; and Gorick Ng, a Wall Street Journal bestselling author of The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right, and career adviser at Harvard College, specializing in coaching first-generation, low-income students.
Here are the key takeaways.
The importance of connecting education and career, now, more than ever
Allowing young people to explore and experiment with their career options early in their education journey is vitally important. As part of ongoing conversations with young people, we’ve discovered that so many of them who had incurred college debt had embarked on a college degree pathway without much support around the discovery of why they wanted to go to college, what major to take, let alone how this might translate into a career they were excited about. Waiting until college for this type of self-examination and exploration is a very expensive way for young people to experiment. What we at ASA see is the opportunity for all young people — regardless of socio-economic background or gender — as early as Middle School, start to understand themselves, options that are available, have a chance to experiment earlier, and then make informed decisions about their postsecondary transitions that will create economic long-term mobility.
Now is an opportune time, as young people are heading back to school during this time of ongoing disruption and uncertainty. We know that millions of young people have been disengaged throughout the pandemic. And there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that getting young people to refocus on their futures and their possibilities is going to be a very powerful way to reorient them and get them re-engaged in the work that they want to do over the next few years.
Chan weighed in, noting that his organization has the privilege of working with some of the nation’s best public charter schools. Many of them have focused on getting students to succeed in college, as that’s been the surest ticket to economic opportunity. And over the course of two decades, these organizations have had amazing results in college graduation rates. “With that said, based on research data, we’ve learned that while a college degree still does provide a significant advantage in the workplace, it doesn’t guarantee a strong launch into a career,” he said.
In terms of improving the K12 experience for a better postsecondary transition, we’ve also observed that behaviors that have led to strong early career outcomes include career exposure, choice of major internship experiences, having mentors or personal connections, and the use of career services.
Ng commented that based on his work, he has observed that oftentimes students don’t have parents who have the knowledge and experience needed to provide guidance on how they should approach career exploration and figure out what they want to do. Based on his experience as a former career advisor at UMass Boston, Ng also noted that unlike career conversations that are happening in the more privileged households, much of the career-related exposure that many students have — particularly those from low-income communities — is based on their observance of celebrities through the media. As a result, these students don’t necessarily see the relevance of what they’re learning in the classroom, and how it relates to where they might want to take their careers in the future. When it comes to college students, in many cases, they end up doing their career navigation the day before graduation.
When Ng thinks about the question of why now and why today, with the COVID-19 pandemic, he has seen in his work that there’s been a big disparity between students who have access to technology, career discovery opportunities through internships, and a stable living environment that enables them to juggle school and work without the familial and the financial burdens. In contrast, students who are from first-generation low-income communities of color have taken the opposite approach. Due to family and financial circumstances, they have had to put their education on pause and/or juggle school and work. So, there have been students who have been able to emerge in the pandemic with multiple internships and multiple career conversations, and even more mentors that they’ve been able to connect with through their parents and social networks. In contrast, others will continue struggling to see a path out of lower paid jobs. It’s difficult for them to pivot back onto the career path that they would like, because making money is so important. So, now more than ever, there needs to be a push to systematize these career exploration conversations earlier in the education journey, in order to address pressing issues relevant to student debt and economic inequality.
Why students need to build navigational skills (alongside technical and soft skills), including the ability to navigate ambiguity
How do we better close the gap between where young people are and where they want to go, and pave a smoother path for these individuals? For those who are in middle and high school, it’s important to help learners understand and appreciate how their education fits in with their broader career paths. In this way, we can help them make the connection between what’s being taught in school and their future. How do we have these clear conversations earlier on, so that it’s not happening the day before or the day after graduation (e.g., conversations around resumes, cover letters, building relationships, navigating the ambiguous world of job postings)? Having these conversations earlier will also enable students to choose their courses and path of study in a more deliberate manner, as opposed to going through this process through trial and error and incurring more and more debt over time.
For students and early career professionals who are in their first jobs, there’s so much that students are learning through trial and error once they enter the workplace. How do we help students build these career navigation skills, including taking ownership, communicating professionally, and managing expectations, starting on the first day as a working professional? These are the skills that may encourage more employers to open job opportunities at the entry level. So, overall, there needs to be a shift to including navigational skills in the conversation alongside technical and soft skills.
I’m in complete agreement regarding the importance of career navigation skills. That’s one of the great challenges that we see for a middle schooler today who may be emerging into the world of work in 2030. It’s very difficult to have a crystal ball about where the labor market will be, what those jobs and roles are, and potentially what those required qualifications will be.
With that said, based on ASA’s research with Burning Glass last year, we do have an idea as to what the skills are that those young people will need. Specifically transferable skills that might be able to move with them through multiple pathways. Reaching young people where they are is also very critical, since they’re on their devices most of the time. To this end, ASA has made efforts to connect young people with some early career exposure and exploration, online.
I think one of the things we are particularly excited about are the ways that we can also reach young people informally, in addition to transformational work in traditional K12 systems. Can we use technology to give them access and exposure to people like them who have occupations they’ve never heard of? In addition, could technology give today’s young people the opportunity to meet a mentor, enroll in a micro-internship or find out more about a particular career pathway? Through those experiences, can they develop social capital to better enable them to pursue a pathway that might not otherwise have been open to them?
Examples of inspiring career-connected learning models
Chan shared examples he has seen through his work. For instance, one high school he works with created a partnership with the largest healthcare system in their region to provide a range of learning opportunities across healthcare for their students, as well as a rigorous college prep academic experience. This enabled students to learn more about what they want to do, and potentially gain experiences that would allow them to secure better jobs or work their way through college. Chan shared another example of a high school — also supported by his organization — that partnered with a range of corporations and companies in their community. This approach is known as industry design challenges, which aims to take on real problems these companies are grappling with and allow students to design solutions and present them to those organizations, while building skills that they could share with future employers.
ASA partners with organizations focused on project-based learning in order to provide more young people with hands-on experience. Key to unlocking more of these opportunities is increasing access to professional development. To this end, we’ve done a lot of work centered on supporting educators who have innovative curriculum. For instance, Citizen Schools has a Catalyst program, which provides a curriculum that connects STEM careers and STEM career education and incorporates them into the science curriculum. In addition, ASA partners with NFTE to combine entrepreneurship with project-based learning opportunities for students. Central to propelling the career exploration movement is supporting educators. Based on grants that fund innovative career exploration curriculum, ASA grantees are sharing and amplifying what’s working in the classroom.
The role of the Catalyze Challenge and Innovation Award in advancing career connections
ASA is among the supporters of the Catalyze Challenge, as we see the need for more innovative ways to creatively engage young people; to make it easier for school leaders to integrate this into the curriculum; and to do more to support our educators to streamline the connections between employers, community-based organizations, and schools. The Catalyze Challenge is designed to source innovations to deliver diverse and equitable opportunities for America’s students to achieve economic success. With more than 300 applications received to date, the Catalyze Challenge seeks to identify programs that meet three key criteria, including those that present novel and inventive approaches to Career-Connected learning, serve students in grades 6-14, and focus on historically underserved groups as delivered by proximate entrepreneurs. We are excited to announce the first round winners at the end of this month. We’ve found this mechanism of a challenge is a potential way to source innovative ideas. And so, as a group of funders, we came together to source innovation, but also to move mindsets forward about what it will take for more of this to happen. There is still so much we don’t know as a community of funders in this educational space. We believe there is so much more to be done, and that we can learn more together rather than acting as individuals.
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