The career and technical education comeback is fierce across the country right now. At their best, curricula are being redesigned to give students industry-relevant experiences and set them on pathways to mid- to high-skills jobs. Students are acquiring industry-recognized credentials and even college credits while they’re still in high school. Businesses are forming closer partnerships with schools. The media regularly remind us how many jobs don’t require a college degree, and the philanthropic community is making big investments in this type of work. It’s the hot initiative du jour, served with some stories of impact and a dollop of hype and hope.
Delaware is no different. With significant local and national investment, and the strength of our local business partnerships, Delaware is doing trailblazing work in this arena. The state has increased the number of students in its Delaware Pathways program from 27 to 12,000 on 14 career paths. Bloomberg Philanthropies has invested $3.25 million in these efforts in Delaware, and we now seem poised to have 20,000 students enrolled in the program by 2020.
But any jubilation should be tempered with a dose of reality. Student participation does not guarantee career placement. Collections of anecdotes do not equate to outcomes at scale. And if we are seeking actual results, we must take an honest look at the labor market and realize the career pathway conversation is missing something critical: Changing the career prospects of students, especially those from least advantaged backgrounds, requires networks of privilege as well as pathways.
As much as we like to assume a meritocratic market and revel in do-it-yourself success stories, the overwhelming majority of jobs and positions are filled through networking. Nearly 70% of jobs are never even advertised; the rolls of the unemployed and underemployed are replete with qualified people who don’t know somebody who knows somebody.
Research tells us that people tend to socialize within homogeneous networks and get hired by people who are culturally similar to themselves. For the most privileged, this provides access to the best career connections, information and opportunities, while those lacking in social capital are left to fend for themselves in the labor market. One example: Research tells us that a “black-sounding” name is enough to limit a job applicant’s opportunities. Given this unfair talent acquisition market, we need to be as willing to open our networks as we are to open CTE programs.
Doing this is very simple. For example, recognizing that many of the alumni of the college preparatory program I co-founded in Wilmington called TeenSHARP lack meaningful career opportunities, I turned to my network. Last summer, I posted on Facebook and LinkedIn asking my network to connect our alumni to internships. A post that took me less than five minutes to write resulted in several game-changing career opportunities for our students.
One alumna from Delaware earned an internship last summer paying $17 per hour at a data analytics company in Wisconsin — with relocation expenses covered and a housing stipend. With the data skills she learned in Wisconsin, we were able to connect her with a well-paid research opportunity at the University of Delaware last school year. She is working at Microsoft in Seattle this summer.
Another alum landed a paid internship with an education nonprofit, a third won an internship working in county government and several received job shadowing opportunities. Some of these organizations even discussed with us the lack of diversity in their internship pool and their desire to create a pipeline.
One alum secured a paid summer internship with a political consulting firm in Washington, D.C., but was unable to find affordable housing. Again, our network came through: We sent around a few emails and in less than a week found a friend who was kind enough to house the alumnus in D.C. for free, so he didn’t have to turn down the internship.
What if, in addition to enrolling students in career pathway programs, there were a widespread commitment to placing them in high-quality job opportunities? What if companies ensured that their paid internships help dismantle privilege? What if school districts partnered with nonprofits that place students in high-quality internships? What if more of us were willing to share our contacts to create professional opportunities for students?
I am confident that simply asking people in our networks to do five-minute favors for our kids could be the E-ZPass accelerating students’ social mobility and the labor market results that our communities so desperately need.
Atnre Alleyne is the founder and executive director of Delaware CAN: The Delaware Campaign for Achievement Now and is also the co-founder of TeenSHARP.