When Employers Invest, Education Can Deliver

Despite growing recognition that the strength of our economy is largely dependent on the quality and relevance of the education and training experiences available to students, productive collaboration between the two sectors is often the exception rather than the rule.

Much of this disconnect is attributable to the large gaps in their respective abilities to adapt. American K-12 and higher education systems are historically inflexible and slow to change, while employers need to be nimble and responsive to shifts in the market. This mismatch has meant that many large employers are developing their own education, training, and credentialing systems in an effort to fill their talent needs rather than waiting for education systems to catch up.

This posture from employers is understandable; they need a skilled workforce now if they want to survive, let alone grow. But at the end of the day, a patchwork of disparately-built workforce development solutions is not the way to build a strong nation and resilient economy. Positioning our education systems to drive our economy forward requires private as well as public investment.

Fortunately, in some places, a promising trend shows that education leaders and employers may finally be hitting their stride and finding high-impact ways to work together.

As efforts to build clearer pathways from education into the workforce takes root across the country, some leaders are finding that doing this work—and, critically, engaging employers in it—is best accomplished at the regional level.

Dominant industries and labor market demands vary widely across the U.S., and it’s important that educational pathways are localized to reflect the career options that are actually available; but at the same time, focusing too narrowly can be limiting. Some leaders are finding that building pathways from education to careers at the regional level—meaning multiple communities within a state or sometimes even across states that share common industries and employers—is the “sweet spot” for sustainable pathways that offer value to students and economies.

Regional collaboration was on full display a few weeks ago at a roundtable event to launch a new phase of the TalentReady initiative, a $5.3 million investment by JPMorgan Chase in the development of career pathways specific to the Washington, D.C., Maryland and northern Virginia region. Five different communities—Baltimore, Maryland; Montgomery County, Maryland; Prince George’s County, Maryland; Washington D.C.; and Fairfax County, Virginia—are working together across state, geographic and political boundaries to build pathways into the career opportunities that are driving economic growth in the region and that provide the greatest opportunity for upward mobility for students.

The initial phase of the TalentReady initiative, from 2019-2023, focused exclusively on building educational pathways to Information Technology careers across the five participating communities, recognizing the tremendous local growth and demand of that industry. With support from Education Strategy Group and the Greater Washington Partnership, the five jurisdictions collectively launched or expanded 19 different career pathways during this time, serving more than 25,000 students this past year alone. Now, they plan to build on that success by expanding the work to include additional high-growth industries in the region, including healthcare, skilled trades and infrastructure.

To kick off the new investment, leaders from Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia, including Governor Glenn Youngkin, K-12 superintendents, college presidents, workforce leaders and CEOs from some of the region’s largest employers, came together for a conversation about how this investment can expand opportunity and build strong, diverse talent pipelines in the greater D.C. region. The CEOs around the table committed to put skin in the game and to encourage their peers to do the same, doubling down on the idea that while public funding is important, public-private partnerships have the potential to be exponentially more impactful. The employer commitment on display via TalentReady—to provide schools input on the skills students need today and in the future; to offer internship and other workplace learning opportunities; to expose students to careers and help them see themselves in those roles; and ultimately to hire students who successfully complete these pathways—is exactly what is needed in regional pathways work across the country.

Nearly 2,000 miles south and west of the greater D.C. region is a very different example of regional pathways collaboration that embodies many of the same core principles. In the Permian Basin, energy is king. Spanning Texas and New Mexico—two states with diverse political leadership—the region is home to more than 20 of the nation’s largest oil and gas companies.

Despite the dominance of the industry, until very recently, very few high schools in the region offered educational pathways in energy fields. But in 2022, the Permian Strategic Partnership, a coalition of 22 leading local energy companies and two major higher education institutions, stepped up to invest in the development of energy pathways beginning at the K-12 level. These employers chose to invest in education systems and prioritize cultivating local talent to address the shortage of skilled energy professionals. They are working together with education leaders to build the opportunities that are right for their students, their employers and their region.

The potential value of regional collaboration between education and employers is evident across the country; whether it’s electric vehicle manufacturing in Kentucky and Tennessee, computer chip production in Ohio or semiconductor manufacturing in New York, customizing educational pathways based on local need is essential for building the talent pipelines communities need to thrive. And as federal resources from the CHIPS Act, Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and others intended to incentivize economic growth pour into communities, there is a real risk that without productive, systemic and sustainable education-employer partnerships, the many new jobs these investments create won’t be filled by local talent.

We can and should prepare students for the global economy; we should also ensure that they have highly accessible opportunities in their own backyard. When employers come to the table in meaningful ways with the K-12 and postsecondary education leaders in their regions, we can do both.


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