Promoting Equity: Employer Partnerships Strengthen Career Education Programs

Traditional postsecondary education paths may be losing their luster as students turn away from four-year college degree programs at growing rates. This shift, driven by financial and post-degree considerations, enhances the popularity of career and technical education (CTE) programs, which larger numbers of students see as routes to fulfilling careers with good wages.

But getting access to CTE programs doesn’t address many challenges students from communities with low incomes face, particularly among Black students and other students of color. Providing disadvantaged students access to CTE and job training is only part of making these programs more equitable. Many CTE programs are working explicitly on reducing the equity gaps laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic and nationwide attention to the effects of racism since the May 2020 murder of George Floyd. The parameters of employer-CTE partnerships are shifting to include post-program considerations like creating genuinely inclusive workplace environments, building meaningful mentorships, and focusing on “asset-based” language that emphasizes people’s strengths rather than their real or presumed deficits.

At a panel discussion with New York–based CTE stakeholders in February 2021, Grantmakers for Education, a nonprofit advisor to educational philanthropic organizations, asked nonprofit organizations and corporate partners about successful strategies for furthering equity in CTE programs and job placements. The discussion, sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and moderated by Sonia Drohojowska of MDRC, featured comments from Bridgette Gray, chief impact officer of Per Scholas, a workforce development organization that provides free certificates and training in the technology industry; Joshua Poyer, vice president at Here to Here, a Bronx-based nonprofit organization that brings together employers, high schools, community leaders, and higher education institutions to develop career pathways for youth; and Grace Suh, who was the vice president for education and corporate social responsibility at IBM at the time of the event, the founding industry partner in the P-TECH 9-14 schools program. These open enrollment schools are part of a global network developed by IBM that includes 266 high schools, 206 colleges, and other industry partners.

Mentors Make a Difference

Panelists emphasized the importance of high-quality coaching and mentorship for CTE students in training and beyond. Coaches help students prepare for a career by helping them cultivate social capital and professional skills. Panelists emphasized the importance of hiring and training coaches with life experiences and the cultural understanding to help students succeed, as mentors sometimes go beyond coaching in skills to discussing microaggressions in the workplace.

To foster an inclusive environment for P-TECH students, IBM started a coaching and mentorship program focused on developing professional skills like critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving. Grace Suh said:

We are very conscious about making sure that our mentors go through cultural training so that they really understand the school and the students. We try to make sure that young people are matched with mentors who they can look up to and emulate, and who can inspire and motivate them to persist and achieve.

At Per Scholas, where most participants are 28 to 35 years old, graduates are assigned to post-placement coaches, who support students by helping them identify and discuss issues they might face as a member of a minority group in the workplace. Gray said:

When you are going to work, there’s someone side by side with you for that first 90 days to…help you understand what are microaggressions that you may see at work... and you don't know what just happened to you. Or what if you walk into an environment and you’re the only person who looks like you—how do you navigate a team like this?

To help students navigate the workforce after they move to a second or third job, Per Scholas works with Coaching for Everyone, an executive development organization. Alumni moving into leadership positions are matched with coaches who “look like them.”

“We’re following you through a continuum so you can start to get the thriving wages,” Gray said. “Because it’s not enough to have someone get a first job.”

High school students and City University of New York interns have told Joshua Poyer at Here to Here that the connection to professionals of color, with similar backgrounds, is a game-changer, because mentors and mentees “can have a little more transparency around their journey, around some of those microaggressions, and how to navigate those things.”

Words Matter

The language programs and employers use to discuss students has been a stumbling block to success. Panelists said changing the frame of reference was vital, and it started with open, honest feedback. In surveys and focus groups, Here to Here asked students about the words that describe them, their peers, and their communities that make them feel uncomfortable, cause them harm, or make them feel “less than.” They also asked what words students wish were used to describe them, their friends, and their neighborhoods. Joshua Poyer from Here to Here said the effort was valuable and emotionally resonant:

As someone born and raised in the Bronx, it touched my heart. A lot of the terms … are words that affected me when I was young, growing up in this community. Students brought up words like, ‘low income,’ ‘at risk.’ Those aren’t the ways our young people see themselves, right? And we asked them, ‘What are some of those words you would want to hear more?’ Words like ‘motivated,’ ‘creative,’ ‘ambitious,’ ‘hard-working.’ 

These conversations formed the basis of the Here to Here Language Guide, which provides recommendations for how intermediaries and employers can be more mindful in engaging and speaking with young people.

Per Scholas went through a similar process, using feedback from current participants and alumni to change both the language used to describe participants and their communities, and also the organization’s mission and vision. Per Scholas’s Bridgette Gray explained:

We went through a process called ‘Getting the Words Right,’ to… focus on asset-based language. We dug in deep to ask our learners and our alumni, when they see the language on our website or in any of our materials, what does that make them feel like? And the feedback was powerful. In one case, one of our learners said it made them feel like they were thrown away. 

The process shifted the organization to a more inclusive sensibility that focuses on what students bring to the program, rather than the services Per Scholas provides.

Working to Change Company Culture

Employers play an essential role in supporting talented, skilled CTE graduates from diverse backgrounds in jobs where company cultures are inclusive and support them at the start of their careers. At IBM, a “new-collar” strategy that hinges on hiring people for their skills, not just their degrees, is intended to reduce existing equity gaps. Last year, the company put this into action; currently, 43 percent of IBM’s current job postings have no degree requirements, according to Grace Suh.

IBM also changed where it recruits new hires. Rather than recruiting from college campuses, Suh said:

We’re going to churches and community centers, making sure that we’re blanketing this kind of opportunity to young people so that they can apply and participate. Having the opportunity to work at a Fortune 500 company or a small [or] medium business is not insignificant. Work begets work.

This shift is complemented by IBM’s partnership in the P-TECH schools initiative, which extends beyond hiring and invests in diverse CTE graduates’ success. Suh said:

Once they get into IBM, we don’t take for granted that they are within our business walls. We do a lot to ensure that we’re creating an environment that is inclusive and not just one that requires assimilation.

Employer investment in the success of students of color and students from communities with low incomes is essential to workforce training initiatives aimed at reducing pronounced equity gaps. While the inequities laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests of last spring will require systemic solutions, employers and CTE programs are seeing that a diverse workforce is a source of economic strength and are using asset-based language, new recruitment practices, and mentorship to hire and retain skilled workers with diverse identities, backgrounds, and experiences.