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Management in Practice

Expanding the Pathways from School to a Career

Washington state’s collective approach to career-connected learning aimed to expand students’ horizons and connect employers to their future workforce. In the process, says Maud Daudon ’83, the executive leader of Career Connect Washington, it has strengthened communities.

A student and instructor working with a piece of equipment

A student and instructor in the AJAC Advanced Manufacturing Apprenticeships program.

Photo courtesy of AJAC

Q: What is Career Connect Washington?

Career Connect Washington is a collective action approach to creating pathways for young people into life-sustaining post-secondary education and career.

In Washington state 40% of our young people complete a post-secondary credential or degree. Since about 70% of the jobs in our current economy require that post-secondary attainment level, there’s a mismatch. Young people without those degrees are not getting the opportunity they need and deserve to be able to be self-supporting, fulfilled individuals going forward. And, at the same time, our economy suffers because we don’t have enough people to fill critical jobs in the workforce.

So often in our country, we think there’s either college or vocational learning. In fact, there are many ways to go to college. There are many ways to do vocational learning. There are many ways to apply classroom learning to create real-world opportunity. There are many ways to leverage work experience for additional education.

For students and parents, Career Connect Washington is a hub for exploring the many potential pathways through post-secondary education and career. That hub is possible because we coordinate and integrate the efforts of our partners in the education system, the workforce system, state agencies, business, labor, and community-based organizations.

Q: How did Career Connect come to be?

Governor Jay Inslee created a task force in 2017 to develop career-connected learning opportunities that would lead students to the high-demand, high-wage jobs available in the state. I was part of that task force. We talked to thousands of Washingtonians about what they’d want and how to structure it. We listened very carefully. Our ultimate vision is to give young people the chance, while they’re still in high school, to explore and understand the different ways into a career, whether it’s college; post-secondary certificates; or a path that integrates paid, work-based experiences with post-secondary education.

In 2019, Career Connect was established in statute. We saw there was great work already happening in our K-12 education system, in our community college system, and in the four-year college system, so, we recommended building on that, not trying to create a new thing. I’m very glad we chose that path because it allowed us to move very quickly.

My role is to act as an advisor to the governor in implementing this initiative on a statewide basis. The small team I lead sits outside government and has been entirely funded by philanthropy. We’re independent actors in a way. But we’re partnered with all the stakeholders including 17 state agencies that are part of a core working group, 9 regional networks, and leaders from 10 industry sectors.

The bulk of the initiative is funded by: employers who pay supervision, training, and wages; the state which pays for the grants to build programs, supports the educational institutions with an incentive if they run Career Launch programs, and funds equipment necessary to support the learning: the federal government through the Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act and more recently through grant awards from the Good Jobs Challenge Grant from the federal Department of Commerce and the Apprenticeship Building America grant from the federal Department of Labor.

Drawing on a broad collective is an approach that Yale SOM trained me to value and to be able to navigate. It’s all hands on deck across the entire community to make it work. It’s all sectors stepping up. Government can do so much, but they can’t do everything. Business can do so much; they can’t do everything. The nonprofit sector can do tons, but they can’t do it by themselves. When you get those partners working together, it just becomes super powerful.

Career Connect Washington’s structure requires a lot of communication. There’s a lot of integration of work and role clarification. And there are new opportunities. The legislation provided grants for programs. Everyone is getting proficient at building programs and sharing what they learn.

Q: Can you give some examples of the programs?

We have 125 different Career Launch programs running across the state. As the home of Microsoft, Amazon, and countless other tech companies, we have software engineering pathways through community colleges and four-year universities.

For IT broadly, there are jobs in many sectors. In eastern Washington there’s an agriculture technology program that trains young people on the complex, high-tech equipment that’s used for picking and sorting fruit. And in the clean energy space, a registered controls specialist apprenticeship program prepares young people to run building automation systems. Buildings all over the state have systems that are designed to be extremely energy efficient, but there aren’t nearly enough people who know how to manage the technology. There’s huge demand.

There’s an 18-month medical assistantship that leads to a very entry-level position, but it puts you on a pathway where, with another six months of education, you can get to the next rung. And with additional education, you get to the next rung and the next rung as far as you want to go in the healthcare world.

In the maritime sector, there are programs for welding for shipbuilding or learning to pilot ships. There are also programs in education, life sciences, advanced manufacturing and aerospace, and finance.

Students come away with a sense of agency in their own journey. Rather than studying, then taking a test, and studying, then taking a test, they get out into the world and find what they’re learning is actually applicable to something they might want to do.

We also have apprenticeships in the traditional building trades. We have many partners, but labor has been absolutely essential in designing all of this. We’ve learned a lot from what they’ve done with registered apprenticeships. Every program that aspires to be part of Career Launch has to go through a review process to ensure that it meets the quality test of strong academics and real employer commitment to train and potentially hire participants. Our partners in labor, business, and education are part of that.

Q: How do participants react to the experiences?

It’s hugely popular. Students come away with a sense of agency in their own journey. Rather than studying, then taking a test, and studying, then taking a test, they get out into the world and find what they’re learning is actually applicable to something they might want to do.

There is a body of research that shows that students who do career-connected learning tend to complete their high school and college degrees more than their peers because the experience is motivating—it gives them a sense of clarity about their own purpose, “If I do finish, I can go and do x.”

Career Launch programs are designed to prepare young people for a real job. For some it does exactly that; they continue in the job the program trained them to do. But we’ve also found many say, “That was great, and now I want to go deeper academically so that I qualify for a higher-level position in the same field.” And some say, “Wow, I’ve learned that this field is not for me.” And they discover that without paying ginormous amounts of money to graduate from college with a degree they have no interest in using. There’s a commonsense aspect to this that is just wonderful.

Q: What brings employers to the programs?

With employers, initially, it’s a bit of a hard sell when we say, “You will take a group of students onto your campus, train them, supervise them, and pay them. And they’re going to give back to you in ways that you’ll be surprised by.”

So we’ve found the best way to recruit new employers is to have them talk with employers who have already done it. The employers who have already taken part are complete converts. They love it because of the impact that young people who are full of questions and ideas and understanding of the latest technology have on their legacy workforce. The existing employees get re-motivated; they get inspired by being mentors and advocates for these young people. And they often come away wanting to update their own skills.

It’s really exciting to hear young people say, “This person has taken me under their wing and now I always call them whenever I have a big decision to make in my life.” The programs build lasting relationships. They bring communities closer in to the students, and especially for kids who may come from families that never would’ve had the opportunity to give them this exposure, they come away with adult advocates who are not their teachers or their parents, but are their champions. It’s this beautiful win-win, mutually beneficial outcome.

I should also mention two additional reasons companies have started to participate. One is that all 10 sectors we work with are desperate for help. They are looking ahead at significant growth. These are the job categories that are not going away. Companies participating in Career Connect look at it as a way to find talent. And two, companies are looking to diversify their workforce. They know that they do not have the demographics in their own team that they need to actually do a great job going forward. To be clear, they understand that diversity is a source of strength and want to get stronger.

When I ran the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, business leaders were continually telling me how expensive it was to import talent from other states and other parts of the world—and then too often having that talent poached by another Washington company. Getting Washington kids into Washington jobs is a much better approach.

Q: Would you expand on the role of diversity, equity, and inclusion for Career Connect?

If we are doing a good job, we’re serving every student. We have strict metrics for ensuring the programs reach representative populations for race, gender, and income for each region of the state. And we want each student to be given whatever help is required to participate according to need. We recognize that’s especially important for those who have a bigger journey to be able to participate.

To me, a pathway to career is the major equity play for young people. Obviously, we are not able to solve all the dynamics of what happens in education, work, or society, but if we can offer this as an opportunity for every single young person and support them in ways that allows them to see their own potential, that’s golden. Giving every young person the exposure and support needed to understand the range of career opportunities creates a much more level playing field.

In many cases, inclusion is built into the programs. For example, three women who had successful careers at places like Microsoft, Amazon, and Cisco wanted to see more underrepresented people in IT, so they started Computing for All, a nonprofit aimed at breaking down barriers to entering computer science careers. When Career Connect started offering grants, they applied, got a grant, did fabulous work, and applied for another. They kept performing. They kept building these incredible programs all over the state. Now they’re the sector leader for technology.

I get inspired listening to them because they have such conviction about the program. They know it works; they see that in the faces of the students. But they also know how it works; they have boots-on-the-ground realism from having created it.

Pretty much, once people touch this work, they get jazzed. That’s really the power of it, honestly.

Q: What are Career Connect’s goals looking a few years out?

Just over 16,000 students participating in Career Launch this year. In our first four years, we’ve seen 15% year-over-year growth during a pandemic. We’ve built 125 Career Launch programs; there are many more in the pipeline. Looking ahead, we want 60% of the high school class of 2030 to complete a Career Launch experience. That’s about 50,000 young people.

We’re mindful that we have a lot to do in the next few years, but we’re excited to be delivering these phenomenal resources to the young people and the employers in the state.