Washington is home to an impressive array of industries, including national and global leaders in aerospace, software, online retail, agriculture, biotechnology, global health, forest products, tourism and more. This year CNBC named Washington “America’s Top State for Business.”

Yet many businesses in Washington, particularly in the Puget Sound area, struggle mightily to fill employment vacancies due to a “skills gap.” Put simply, we’re not graduating students (or retraining current workers) at a rate fast enough and with the right credentials to keep pace with job openings in our growing economy.

Here are a few eye-opening statistics from the statewide business group Washington Roundtable, and their education foundation, Partnership for Learning.

  • Washington is expected to have 740,000 job openings by 2021, the majority of which will be filled by workers who earn some type of credential after high school.
  • Thirty-five percent of these positions are classified as “career jobs” meaning they are higher skill, higher paying jobs with a salary range of $60,000 to $100,000+. More than nine-in-10 workers who fill these positions will have a postsecondary credential (73 percent) or completed some college (18 percent).
  • Forty-five percent of jobs are defined as “pathway jobs” with salaries of $30,000 to $45,000 per year. These offer a potential path to a career job. Nearly two thirds (64 percent) of pathway jobs will be filled by workers with a postsecondary credential (34 percent) or some college level course work (30 percent).

Across the state some school districts are partnering with local and regional organizations to help students learn more about potential jobs and the pathways to get them there. In Snoqualmie Valley, a new program “Career Exploration Fridays” plans to do just that. We spoke with one of the main architects of the project, school board member Carolyn Simpson.

Two hats and three goals – as a Snoqualmie Valley School District board member and as president of the Snoqualmie Valley Chamber of Commerce, Carolyn Simpson understands both the school and business perspective of education and workforce training. At statewide gatherings of school board members, Simpson learned about programs that helped connect students to potential careers. And through her work with the Chamber of Commerce she’d also heard from business leaders about the substantial jobs/skills gap employers were seeing.

Inspired by what she learned, Simpson forged ahead with an effort to help high school students explore employment opportunities available to them. A partnership between the school district, chamber of commerce and a local non-profit came together and developed “Career Exploration Fridays” with these goals:

  1. Show students real job sites – The connection between academic work and the real world at times can be murky. Even if a student has some idea of what jobs interest them, they often don’t know what degrees or credentials they need or what the job entails. “There’s usually no straight line” when it comes to working and a career, observed Simpson. “There are jumping off points. Not everything requires a college degree.” Visiting job sites where professionals explain what they do and how they got there helps students better understand the process, and can make academic work seem more relevant.
  2. Try it out – No doubt about it, learning by doing remains one of the best teaching tools. “Hands-on experience with local employers enables students to explore their interests, understand job opportunities, and connect what they’re learning in the classroom to the skills they’ll need in their futures,” says Brian Jeffries, policy director for Partnership for Learning. And as Simpson observed, more trial-and-error up front can help students avoid wasting time, energy and tuition dollars preparing for a job that may not be a good fit.
  3. Train teachers, too – By encouraging teachers to visit job sites, they return to the classroom with a better sense of how to connect academic coursework to real-world employment experiences. Mount Si High School Engineering teacher Ashley Hutchison, in a video about the program, stressed the importance of showing students “there is more than one path to get to whatever career you are trying to reach.”

Community support – While the local school district and chamber of commerce were logical partners, a less obvious ally emerged when Snoqualmie Valley Community Network – a local non-profit that supports healthy youth and family initiatives – expressed interest. Simpson noted that with expertise in conducting focus groups and community surveys, they helped the program figure out prior to launch what students wanted and whether it could work. More importantly, they saw an opportunity to support students who have lost hope feel inspired about their future, a key part of their mission in supporting children’s health.

 

How it works –  Located about 30 miles east of Seattle, Snoqualmie Valley School District is home to two high schools: Mount Si, a comprehensive four-year high school for grades 9-12, and Two Rivers, an alternative program for grades 8-12. On select Fridays students travel via district bus to sites where they meet with employers, ask questions, observe production or manufacturing processes and learn what future employment prospects are like in that industry.

According to Simpson, so far student conversations with employees and employers appear to have the biggest impact. She recalled one student who was especially motivated when shown how he could apply his graphic design skills at a company that made medical monitoring equipment. She hopes to eventually make the program part of the regular curriculum during the school day so that students can rotate through many industries. She also sees the potential for connecting students via Skype or similar video access for regional employers that are too far to reach in person.

Mission completion The mission of Snoqualmie Valley School District is to “educate all Snoqualmie Valley children to prepare them for college, career, and citizenship.” Helping connect students to an eventual career through hands-on experiences in real jobs is an effective way to further that aim.

“With 740,000 job openings in our state by 2021, our students are graduating into a strong economy,” said Jeffries. “When students understand the jobs available in our state and the skills they’ll need to succeed in those jobs, they’ll be better prepared to take advantage of the opportunities Washington has to offer.”

Learn more – Here are some resources about career-connected learning:

Ready Washington

Partnership for Learning

Video: Career Connected Learning – Creating Pathways and Opportunity

Washington STEM

Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board