GUEST ARTICLE: Creating Career Pathways for High School Students Not Going On To a 4-Year College

As Chair of the 132-member Evanston Mayor’s Employer Advisory Council (MEAC), I have learned a few lessons in the last year.  Briefly, MEAC was formed to bring together the five local stakeholder groups: employers, Evanston Township High School, Oakton Community College, local and regional government departments, and not-for-profit workforce development organizations. Together the mission of these groups is the creation of career pathways for high school graduates not going on to college after graduation.  The best part of this is that all of the stakeholder groups are all at the same table at the same time for better coordination! 

This year, we pivoted to doing our work remotely.  When the pandemic hit and closed the schools, we helped set up paid, 12 week, on-site summer internships that were made available for the Class of 2020 graduates.  This turned out very successful with 15 graduates placed with local employers in their career interest area. 

At the start of this school year, we developed seven hour-long virtual career pathway panel presentations focused on careers that do not require a college degree.  Each featured four employers and Oakton Community College.  School staff and parents also were able to join. The school recorded each presentation and posted them on their web site.    

We have recently begun to reach into our middle school at their request.  Many young people discover their areas of interest early, especially in 7th and 8th grade.  Our goal here is to facilitate their transition to high school and help them plot their course with curriculums that support their interest and long-term career success. 

We have learned a few things along the way:

Many high school students do not know why they are in school!  These students tend to say there is no reason to go.  Of course, we know that this is preparing them for the rest of their lives.  We need to do a better job explaining to all students that going to school is not meant to torture them but to give them the tools to succeed in life.  It is very important that schools acknowledge the needs of each individual student and give them the tools to make them successful.  This may mean adjusting curriculums to support those students.  Not every student needs AP classes or Calculus for example.  Enough said!

Most employers require at least 6th-grade math and reading skills as a minimum.  The trades are especially rigid on this.  The students need to know this before they enter the workforce so they can avoid unpleasant surprises.  Repeat this information often to them!

Most employers require their employees to be drug-free.  The fact that marijuana is legal does not make it acceptable in the workplace.  Alcohol is legal too but you cannot show up for work under the influence.  Another thing students need to know.  This cannot be reinforced enough!    

More young people today are looking at alternatives to a 4-year degree.  Cost and the return on investment are critical reasons for this.  There is a lot more publicity nationally about student debt and the value of a 4-year degree.  At our career panel presentations, we ask the presenters to tell their story as many did not go to college but got good, relevant post-secondary training leading to successful careers.  Students really pay attention to these stories, especially if the presenter is closer to their age. 

The majority of all high school graduates will require some sort of post-secondary training to maximize their chances at a good life.  This is true for even the most basic entry to a career path.  This could be on-the-job to specialized training for just about any career pathway.  Constant learning is the norm.  Community colleges offer a great deal of support in this area.  But applicants must be proficient at reading and probably math.  It is a shame to spend money on remedial classes at these colleges to get a student prepared.  These remedial classes do not count towards a certificate or degree!

Many if not most employers do not have the processes and procedures to successfully employ recent high school graduates.  Recent high school graduates may be very smart but employers must remember they are teenagers!  Many employers are not set up to bring in these young people.  They need to be trained and mentored for the best chance of being successful.  Retention of these young people requires more than just putting them in an entry-level position and not insuring their supervisors are trained to make them successful.  It takes a village!! 

Neil Gambow, Chair – Mayor’s Employer Advisory Council

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