Attacking the gap: the bridge from class to career

Attacking the gap: the bridge from class to career
Photo: freepik.com

After years spent mired in the Supreme Court’s McCleary decision and battling over education funding, the legislature is now uniquely aligned around one major goal: bridging the gap between students and jobs.

Last week’s Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee work session on connecting students to jobs capped an early and broad statement of intent to align schools and jobs expressed from the governor’s office to the legislature’s education committees.

“We have enormous amounts of jobs open and we’re not getting kids into the rights fields, into the right jobs,” said Sen. Guy Palumbo, (D-1), the Senate Higher Education Committee chair.

Labor market indicators show that 70 percent of the more than 740,000 jobs opening up in Washington will require some kind of post-secondary credential, but only 40 percent of students are actually achieving credentials. This is referred to as the skills gap.

Credentials include two-year and four-year degrees, certificates and apprenticeships.

Business-driven stakeholders believe Washington can reach a 70 percent credential rate by 2030 – if all involved take coordinated action.

Indicators of success

Thursday’s Senate work session saw the Washington Roundtable and Washington STEM present their metrics for Washington’s progress toward meeting the 70 percent goal.

The key indicators of progress toward that goal measured by the Washington Roundtable are high school graduation rate, post-secondary enrollment, post-secondary graduation rate and the actual credentialing rate.

Starting from a baseline of 2006, Washington has made progress on each metric except post-secondary enrollment, with only 77 percent of graduating students continuing on to enroll in a post-secondary credential path.

In order to get Washington on track to achieve that 70 percent credential rate, schools would need to produce a 95 percent post-secondary enrollment rate – an 18-point increase. Data from the best-performing states shows this is possible, but significant gaps need to be addressed before Washington can join their ranks.

Persistently low post-secondary enrollment among Native American, Hispanic and low income students marks the biggest opportunity for Washington to begin closing the gap in credentialing for jobs.

In order to collapse these persistent gaps, policy experts recommend educators start early. The key links in the chain pulling students upward through school begin with early learning, measured by third grade reading scores of students. Research indicates correlation between third grade reading level and long-term academic success.

The other key link is the transition from primary to secondary school, especially the jump from 8th grade to 9th grade. Starting with the 2017-18 class, each student in 7th and 8th grade will have to begin building a High School and Beyond plan which must be completed by their senior year in order to graduate. High School and Beyond plans require students to complete a resume, identify career goals and align their education to achieve them.

Neil Strege, vice president of Washington Roundtable, reported in the Senate work session that implementation of the High School and Beyond plans remains uneven, which could lead to inequities in the future.

While many of the priorities discussed to address the career potential of students revolves around higher education, the committee particularly highlighted the importance of the “Workforce Development” part of its title by including trades and apprenticeships as part of the career continuum.

Sen. Jeff Holy, (R-6) questioned panelists on the “screaming need” to promote trades as an equal career path to a four-year degree.

“I don’t think we’ve overemphasized four-year degrees, I think that we’ve underemphasized the other options,” responded Strege.

Data Backlog

Multiple priorities exist for driving success around many of these indicators of student progress to a post-secondary credential, but before educators and stakeholders can identify the broken links in the chain they need comprehensive data.

Dr. Jeneé Myers Twitchell, Impact Director at Washington STEM, reported to the Higher Education Committee members a significant backlog in comprehensive student data. The Washington Education Research and Data Center (ERDC) was created in 2007 to serve as a central hub for longitudinal education data made available from preschool through to employment.

However, the ERDC is now backlogged with requests and data services that are steeply outstripping available systems. Myers Twitchell explained how as a university researcher it had taken her 14 months and a call from the governor’s office in order to produce a disaggregated dataset she requested.

The average wait for data is up to 3 years.

Regional, district and school leaders are also asking for more employment and wage outcome data for the students at their level of administration. Many of these data points are spread across 17 different agencies in the state.

If a principal, superintendent or college administrator wants to determine how they are doing in terms of connecting students to jobs, they must either hire an outside firm to conduct the data work or join the years-long waitlist for ERDC.

Increased funding to provide ERDC the resources to process these requests is included the governor’s budget proposal as part of his Career Connect initiative.

Palumbo opened the Senate work session with a pledge to spend further work sessions addressing each of the issues raised last Thursday. The scope of the issues suggests a full schedule.

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