Cardona: Employers should begin working with students as early as middle school

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News
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More business and industry groups need to be engaged with students earlier in their K-12 education to improve their chances of going to college and earning a degree or certificate, according to U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.

That interaction should start as early as middle school, Cardona said.

"There is so much work to be done to engage our workforce partners with our community colleges, with our high schools to create pathways for students," said Cardona. "The workforce partners have to be involved earlier ...You can't wait for students to graduate to be connected."

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona speaks during a press briefing at the White House, Wednesday, March 17, 2021, in Washington.

Cardona made the comments during the opening session of the Education Writers Association national seminar held virtually this week.

He challenged businesses to get involved.

"Start sitting down with educators to help develop curriculum so that the curriculum that our students are getting as early as middle school connect to workforce needs that there are out there," Cardona said. "We have to be intentional about our collaboration to get that work done."

There are an increasing number of free college tuition programs in Michigan but free tuition alone is not a guarantee that students will graduate or earn a certificate in a skilled trade or occupation, a study found. 

New York-based education and social policy research group MDRC examined the Detroit Promise Path program that provides students with a coach and small stipend in addition to free tuition. The MDRC compared those students to others who received only free tuition. While slightly more Promise Path students earned a credential or degree in three years than those receiving just free tuition, the three-year graduation rate was still about one in 10 students.

The issue was highlighted recently in an EWA-funded Detroit News project about Detroit's efforts to help students with free college funds graduate with a degree or certificate.

The Detroit Regional Chamber has administered free college programs for Detroit high school students for years but officials said students struggle with issues such as transportation, finances and arriving at college academically underprepared.

The chamber is exploring ways to incorporate more career-track internships into the program since some students need to work while attending school. An internship could help students see the relevance of their education while giving them experience, a potential future employer, and simultaneously create a talent pipeline for local businesses, said Greg Handel, vice president of education and talent programs for the Detroit Regional Chamber.

Providing students with experience working in their field is an important way to help them see the value of completing their college education, said Handel.

"The more students connect their education with the ability to get a job the more likely they are to stick with their education," Handel said.

The chamber is in the early stages of establishing partnerships to create an internship/job placement program for Detroit Promise students who are in community college, said Handel.

"We want to make sure employers are prepared and equipped to deal with the students and where they are coming from as we prepare the students," Handel said. "We want to create a seamless connection."

Other business leaders agree that cooperation between employers and education providers is paramount to student success.

John Walsh, president and CEO of the Michigan Manufacturers Association, said many Michigan community colleges work closely with industry to develop curriculum. 

"Many of our members are also actively engaged in their communities through workforce development programs at community colleges," said Walsh. "Others work closely with their local K-12 school districts and intermediate school districts to the same end. That said, we would all benefit from even greater cooperation."

The Michigan Construction Career Days will be held virtually on Thursday for students in grades 7-12 to highlight career and educational opportunities for young people contemplating a career in the building trades.

There are other fields also in demand with high wages including agriculture, energy, healthcare, information technology, manufacturing and mobility, said Stephanie Beckhorn, director of the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic's Office of Employment and Training. Many do not require a four-year degree, but rather a credential, certificate, on-the-job training or registered apprenticeships.

“Michigan offers several tools that support career awareness and exploration and can help propel residents towards taking the leap in pursuing a new and different professional opportunity,” said Beckhorn.

The state is constantly talking to employers to learn what in-demand skills they need to grow their businesses, said Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity spokesperson Erica Quealy.

She highlighted several programs including the state's Future for Frontliners and Reconnect programs, which are providing free college funds for front-line workers and residents who are over the age of 25 and without a degree.

"We are working to make sure a steady stream of students are graduating with certificates and degrees to meet that need," said Quealy. "There are a number of events throughout Michigan where educators and employers come together to offer career exploration for middle and high school students."

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