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Educators Promote Communication, Alignment for Future Student Success

Salt Lake City—Education is changing. As many industries in the Beehive State complain their advancement is being held back by workforce shortages, many look toward education to cure their ills—if not now, then in the future. Just last year, Governor Gary Herbert kicked off an initiative called Talent Ready Utah, which aims to connect educators with the industries hungry for their help.

Stackable degrees, pathway programs, apprenticeships and other initiatives have also rolled out in Utah in the past several years, aiming to help students take advantage of new pathways to success that may not saddle them with debt, or that may allow them to get a job directly out of their program.

A group of more than 20 educators and industry professionals met Tuesday morning at Holland & Hart’s downtown office as part of Utah Business’ annual Education Roundtable. The shifting landscape of education and how these new pathways and programs fit into traditional education models—and what they bring to the table—was top of the mind for many in attendance. In tweaking ways to adequately preparing our future workforce, what can educators, counselors, and the business community do?

“It takes a village,” said Melisa Stark, employer initiatives program manager at the Department of Workforce Services. “That’s why it’s really important that we all work together to enhance those opportunities and create more opportunities, using avenues through the Chamber, using avenues through Talent Ready Utah, to create those additional work-based learning opportunities.”

Work-based learning, through interning or job shadowing, is primarily important because young students are otherwise hindered by their age and other factors if they want to see what the industry they may enter is like. Students can learn intangible qualities that employers highly value—like, said Tami Pyfer, education advisor to Gov. Herbert, teamwork, social intelligence, time or project management skills, critical thinking and problem-solving—while “on the job.” Those skills can provide a valuable background for students who want to work in skilled fields, said Brian Olmstead, CTE coordinator for the Utah State Board of Education.

“We feel like the ultimate career and technical education (CTE) experience is a student who had a course and then they go and have an internship, a work-based learning experience, with an employer… I think my employability skills came from my dad,” Olmstead said. “But some people don’t have that kind of environment, so you learn that [through work-based learning] instead.”

But scaling CTE through job-shadowing or internship is difficult, continued Olmstead, because you have to continue bringing more and more employers on board. And that takes a serious commitment from the business community in training the next generation of workers.

Maybe just as difficult is making sure that student counselors are even aware of all the internships and work-based learning opportunities available to their students. Bob Peterson, vice president of student services as Uintah Basin Technical College, said that the alignment in Uintah Basin is nearly perfect due to the physical proximity of the high school, technical college and university—and yet, still, counselors can be overwhelmed purely due to the ratio of counselors to students (1: 300 or so, said Peterson). So, Uintah Basin Technical College is trying to pick up the slack.

“We’re trying to help with the articulation of the courses and the pathways to help inform [our students] and bring them more education. We’ve had opportunities to invite parents in with their students, too,” he said. “I think the counselors appreciated us coming to them and seeing that articulation with high school pathways and certificate programs.”

“We’ve come a long ways in our counselor-student ratios, but they could be better, I’m sure,” said Jason Skidmore, CTE director of Jordan School District. “We’ve taken the initiative to hire additional employees who focus solely on work-based learning internship opportunities, job shadows, to try to take some of that off of what the counselors have to do. They have other things to focus on.”

Pyfer moderated the discussion. Read the full conversation in the September issue of Utah Business.