The catch-22 of career-connected learning

Career programs need buy-in from both employers and students, but who is going to move first? We talked with George Vinton, CEO of Common Group, about that challenge and more.

When the Catalyze Challenge launched more than a year ago, the idea was to eschew isolated grants and create an “innovation engine” for funding and refining new learning models that help more students move from education to career. A big goal was to identify gaps in what was already out there.

Now with $10 million in awards out in the field, the challenge is out with it’s first set of findings—and two things jump out:

  • The country has a dearth of paid learning experiences—like internships, externships, or other on-the-job learning—for students in high school and the first two years of college.
  • Paid learning experiences are particularly scarce in rural areas, as are other career development approaches that require deep employer involvement.

Both need more investment, says George Vinton, CEO of the Common Group, the social impact consulting firm that runs the Catalyze Challenge. But the biggest lesson, he says, is that a lot of institutions and nonprofits are working to increase career-connected learning—with the challenge receiving almost 900 applications over two rounds. 

“That’s really encouraging because it shows us that this energy exists,” he says.

Prize challenges, like MIT Solve or XPrize’s Digital Learning Challenge, have become increasingly popular in philanthropy and social impact investing. Their goal is not just to provide funding, but to focus attention and action on a particular issue and get a better sense of who’s already working on it.

The Catalyze Challenge brought together seven national funders, including the founding philanthropies American Student Assistance and Walton Family Foundation. In the first two rounds, it offered grants of up to $500,000 to design, pilot, and expand solutions that engage students in career-connected learning.

And it put a heavy emphasis on grantees working with historically underserved groups and those willing to share their research, lessons learned, and outcomes data throughout the process. To date: 

  • The challenge has funded 40 solutions in 24 states, collectively serving more than 16,500 learners.
  • And 82% of grantees serve or intend to serve communities in which more than 60% of learners are part of historically underserved groups.

We talked with Vinton about what the partners have learned thus far—and about the biggest barriers to expanding career-connected learning. 

Given the broad geography represented here, any lessons learned that apply across the country?
George Vinton, CEO of Common Group

A: We have had a ton of applications across the country, and we’ve seen this in both rounds of Catalyze. So the biggest lesson is a lot of institutions, a lot of nonprofits, are working to bring career-connected learning into the classroom and into institutions in all parts of the country. That’s really encouraging because it shows us that this energy exists.

You especially see a lot of energy in states like Texas, and cities like New Orleans. Also in Camden, New Jersey. There are pockets where this work is going a lot deeper, and it will be interesting to track those and to see our outcomes improving in them more quickly or more sustainably than other places. The question for us is what can we do to level the playing field across the country? 

We’ve actually seen a lot of applications and winners from rural areas. It’s been an intentional focus for us. But you can imagine that the idea of career-connected learning, especially apprenticeships, pathway programs, and so on in rural settings are harder because there are fewer employers. Most of them tend to be small- and medium-sized businesses. It’s naturally a more difficult area. But we are also seeing quite good take up there. A good example is the Spark Oregon program, which uses YouScience’s career guidance tools and hands-on learning projects to get more students interested in and ready for STEM careers. The program’s ultimate goal is to generate scalable and sustainable funding for the whole state of Oregon and especially rural communities.

Are you hoping that grantees can expand their work to relatively large numbers of learners? Or is the goal more about smaller, tailored solutions for local communities?

A: Scale is a very, very difficult proposition in this space. And it’s partly because a lot of this work comes down to individual relationships, relationships between institutions and employers, relationships between counselors and students, and so on.

And that work is hard to replicate. What is the secret recipe for that? You know, I don’t think it’s been determined yet, although, of course, part of the work that we’re doing is to find those things that can be replicated more easily and more consistently. So I would say that the ambition for Catalyze is that we want to find those things that are on the frontier. We want to find new models. Models that, in theory, have the potential over time to either scale or be replicated.

Generally speaking, we see those that are producing the best outcomes having a good deal of human touch. In another program we’re actually working with a provider to figure out how to scale relationship-driven initiatives. And that is an interesting question. 

What are key takeaways from this work for funders?

A: Some of the most interesting stuff here is: where are the barriers to actually moving career-connected learning in middle school and high school into a new phase of growth? And in those bridge years between high school and postsecondary we just see a very consistent trend of the things that prevent either programs reaching their full potential, or students being able to make best use of the opportunities. And they’re not surprising.

They are No.1, employer relationships. We’re doing a separate project to understand what will motivate more involvement from employers in pathways, especially in high school or maybe early community college. If we can’t get employers to participate then we can’t really get very far. The good news is that the investment may not have to be as big as some employers think. For example, some really interesting research in the UK measures the impact of career talks. Someone comes into a classroom and gives a talk—and they measured the impact of that, in a randomized control trial, on young people. And what they found was that just there was a magic number of four or five career talks that boosted someone’s lifetime earnings by 5%. You might say that’s not very much. But I would argue that it’s worth doing, given that it doesn’t take very much time.

But even that requires the involvement, not so much of employers, but people who have jobs. And so this connection of schools, communities, and the workplace is something that we are really invested in.

We’re following the work of the Next Education Workforce team at ASU who have this idea of community, or this model of community educators. Basically, how do you do more to bring community members and folks who are working in a community into a classroom? And all that needs to be explored in much more detail over the coming years.

And No. 2, the other big barrier we’re seeing is recruitment of students. That is an interesting one because we’re seeing generally a retrenchment of young people from wanting to go to college and applying to college. And so the question is, well, what are they doing instead? 

Based on what we’re seeing from our grantees, there is not a consistent trend of people moving from a four-year college pathway to an alternative, or at least that jump that we might expect people to make. “I don’t want to go to college, but then instead I should do something that’s more career focused,” doesn’t seem to be being made in a consistent way. The implication of that is:

  1. It’s really hard to recruit a full cohort of students for a given program, and 
  2. We have concerns, as do many others, that many folks are gonna be in a position of having no plan after they leave high school.

And that is, interestingly, American Student Assistance’s North Star—that every student leaves high school with a plan.

It seems to us from somewhat anecdotal, but pretty consistent, data that many young people are not applying to many programs like the ones Catalyze is funding. And they are also, at the macro level, not choosing to go to four-year college.

What might change that?

A: Right, so how do we reach people? There is a big component of the Catalyze strategy, which is around narrative change. As it relates to students and families, the idea is that there are many pathways to economic opportunity, and that a career-connected pathway or educational experience that connects to a career will add value to any individual in any context in any part of the country.

So how do we convince families? How do we convince young people? How do we reach young people without the sort of predatory practices that for-profit universities have been accused of in the past? That is quite challenging. And what role does philanthropy have to play in that? What role does the government have to play in that? What role do employers have to play in that?

An interesting insight that we’ve picked up from our learner-facing research, especially for alternative programs, is when you say, “what’s the biggest driver of you doing this program, or what would make you choose this program?” people say, “If an employer told me that they would hire from it, I will do it.” And especially an employer in a specific sector.

It can feel like a catch-22: Families and learners perhaps don’t have an appetite for these programs without employer commitments. But employers won’t sign on until families and learners are actually participating in the pathways and there’s a critical mass of talent that they can hire. So it’s a complex picture. 

The big takeaway, though, is we need to work on employer engagement. And we need to work on engaging learners and families and educators who are major influences in young people’s decision making. That can be done through a concerted strategy of implementing programs and funding that implementation. But we also need to synthesize what works, what doesn’t, and then turn that into something that is media friendly or likely to persuade. We need these three levels working together: funding, learning, and storytelling.

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