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Workforce readiness must be a shared responsibility

By Mayor Mark Stodola

Sep 12, 2018

Education is not just about academic preparation. That’s why many 11th- and 12th-grade students in the city of Little Rock are figuring out life after graduation by getting their hands dirty — quite literally, in some cases. Rather than spending all of their time in the four walls of a school building, an increasing number of our students are getting out of the classroom and working in in-demand fields such as medical sciences, construction, technology, and education.

Students are getting this experience through a second-year program championed by the Little Rock School District and Little Rock Regional Chamber called Excel Careers for Advanced Professional Studies (EXCEL). The main goal of EXCEL is to provide local students the opportunity to test-drive careers so they can make informed choices about the pathways available to them.

Importantly, EXCEL has been shaped with input from local businesses. Also, the program gives students the opportunity to pursue internships that simultaneously help them gain industry certifications and college credit. This enhances students’ opportunities to experience the post-secondary workforce even beyond the solid work of our Metropolitan Career Technical Center(referred to as “Metro”), which already provides an avenue for students to earn industry certifications and pre-apprenticeship training in areas such as healthcare, public safety, welding, and computer science.

Unfortunately, programs like EXCEL and Metro aren’t as readily available to young people across the country as they should be, and the programs that do exist need to operate at a larger scale. Though the jobs are there, our country has relatively few coordinated technical, vocational, or real-world learning experiences available for our young people.

Our goal must be to create a true cradle-to-career effort, where we ensure that from birth, all children have the opportunity to plot a course to a successful and dignified future.

The data show we have a lot of work to do when it comes to getting our young people on a path to the middle class. Case in point: persistent high school dropout rates and low college completion rates.

Nationally, 30 to 40 percent of high school students do not finish high school on time, with many entering the ranks of the underemployed and unemployed. And even though a greater number of students from diverse backgrounds and income levels are enrolling in college, the completion rates for poorer students are horrific — a recent New York Times article reports that it’s under 12 percent.

The only way to address this problem is through coordinated efforts by the public and private sector that not only provide opportunities, but also inspire students to take them on. At the city level, that means bringing together local businesses, school districts, local community colleges, and state partners to align policies and programs that help residents achieve success. In doing this, our goal must be to create a true cradle-to-career effort, where we ensure that from birth, all children have the opportunity to plot a course to a successful and dignified future.

But for programs like EXCEL to be effective in the long run, they can’t just be one-off initiatives. Rather, they should be at the core of cities’ economic, workforce development, public safety, and infrastructure plans, among others.

Students in the EXCEL program gave final presentations at Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce. Photo courtesy of Little Rock School District.

In Little Rock, for example, we brought the community together to develop a Youth Master Plan, which is designed to help us work across systems, departments, and partner organizations to ensure that even our youngest residents are set on a pathway for success in life.

Efforts like these aren’t easy. They require us to identify common goals, strive for compromise, and overcome barriers set up by different regulations and rules. But once the work is put in, these combined efforts have a much greater impact on our communities than if each of us were to pursue parallel tracks in isolated silos.

Because of the work we’ve done to bring stakeholders in Little Rock together around the common goal of getting our young people prepared for in-demand careers, the city’s workforce readiness is improving. Enrollment in the EXCEL program has doubled in only its second year and our Metro program has seen participation increase to more than 600, thanks in part to enhanced commitments from the city for student fire and police academies.

In my role as president of the National League of Cities, I often challenge other local officials and community leaders to work together to align resources and programs, and to ensure that there is a true cradle-to-career strategy when it comes to workforce development. That challenge is more important today than ever. Our country’s future depends on it.

Mark Stodola is the mayor of Little Rock, Arkansas, and the president of the National League of Cities.