Connecting education and industry through Career Pathways

June 30, 2014
By Steve Shepelwich, Senior Community Development Advisor


Career guidance connects education with industry.

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Charlie Riddle of MIC Group, left, talks with Duncan Middle School educators,
from left to right, Butch Evans, Jimmy Griffin, Stacy Smith,
Patti Thaxton and Sherry McGhghy.

(Photo credit: Derrick Miller/The Duncan Banner)

Many rural communities face a common concern—population loss and a dwindling labor market. New industries are hard to attract and local businesses struggle to grow. This often reinforces the cycle of youth leaving the area to find better opportunities.

The Southwest Oklahoma Impact Coalition is addressing the issue head on in its 20-county region. The coalition consists of higher education institutions, regional associations of governments and career centers in partnership with diverse business, community and education partners.

The coalition’s mission is growing wealth in its region by coordinating workforce and economic development activities. Based on stakeholder engagement, the coalition has focused its efforts on one priority—improving and connecting Oklahoma’s education systems to support business growth and job creation.

The coalition put legs to this priority by advocating for “Education with a Purpose” in which a career pathways model is used to connect education opportunities with specific careers. Through this approach, individuals are able to identify an educational path through relevant courses, certificates and degrees to obtain the skills required by in-demand jobs. Employers, in turn, are able to clearly define their needs and develop a pipeline of talent.

While simple in concept, career pathways require the ongoing leadership and involvement of employers, educators and community leaders.

The coalition began a pilot program in Duncan, Okla., in 2012 to refine the model through practice. Duncan was chosen due to its robust manufacturing, energy and healthcare sectors, and having a Career Tech and a higher education branch campus.

Remembering the beginning of the pilot, Marilyn Feaver, the coalition’s director, said, “With the Duncan pilot, we just began. We had no guide; we had no real plan. However, we knew that we had to jump in and start the discussion about how we could help our youth understand the relevance between what they were being asked to learn in school and their futures. We knew, in time, a plan would evolve.”

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Two local champions, however, quickly became key to the initiative.

Lyle Roggow, president of the Duncan Area Economic Development Foundation, was instrumental in advancing the involvement of business and industry. Sherry Labyer, superintendent of the public school district, knew that schools needed to be a part of the initiative.

With these leaders, the coalition has developed a range of programs to connect students, teachers and industry leaders at many levels. The outcome has increased their relevance to each other.

“We don’t use the term ‘rigor’ when we talk about education,” Labyer said. “We prefer the term ‘relevance,’ because what we are trying to do is connect the dots between what the children are learning in the classroom and what skills they will need someday in a job.”

For students, the result has been greater exposure to careers, beginning at an earlier age. Third-grade students attend an event focused on healthy living and careers in the medical field sponsored by Duncan Regional Hospital. Fourth-grade students attend a one-day event organized and sponsored by Halliburton Services. An engineering contest is conducted for 8th through 12th grades with more than 400 students participating.

The initiative has opened new opportunities for teachers to integrate industry information into their activities and raise its priority. All Duncan Public School teachers are required to make logical connections between existing content and careers as often as reasonable. Each school has a designated teacher to lead the discussion about career pathways at every staff meeting.

As a part of the professional development program, all-day Teacher Tours are done each year at Duncan’s major manufacturing facilities to better equip teachers to help students make the connection with school and various career paths.

“It was on my group’s second tour, at Cameron Measurements, that I really started applying what I was hearing to how we would each—the math teacher, the science teacher, the English teacher, even the art teacher—apply the different skills needed in those jobs to the education of our students,” said Lisa Snider, a Duncan school teacher.  “Of course, at a company that develops flow meters, measurement is everything, so the math and physical science are no-brainers.

“When our guide mentioned that new ideas had to be presented for additional funding and the go-ahead to proceed with the project, my English teacher’s brain kicked in. Maybe my students won’t get much out of writing about themes present in “Romeo and Juliet,” but writing proposals for a skate park? That could be helpful. And new ideas for flow meters? It probably helps if you can sketch the thing—art teacher.”

Experiences such as these, in the classroom and on the shop floor, have made the Duncan pilot a success and a model that is now being replicated by other communities in Oklahoma.

The coalition has documented the process developed through the Duncan pilot in its “Career Pathways Easy Start Guide.” The tool provides a six-step process for local communities to develop similar partnerships to meet their local needs.

As Mr. Roggow notes,  “Every community is different in terms of what drives their local economy; therefore every Career Pathways initiative is going to look different.”

Reflecting on her experiences in the Career Pathways initiative, Labyer said, “Everyone supports the Career Pathways concept but the mistake is being made that these initiatives require a great deal of money. Yes, it helps to have funding for special projects, but many of these ideas only require some creative thinking on the part of teachers, administrators and community leaders.”

The Coalition is working with a growing number of communities to initiate their own Career Pathways initiative.

“A crucial step for schools and communities to begin their own journey is to realize that Career Pathways is not a program but rather an initiative that stakeholders should embrace,” Feaver said. “The initiative requires human capital, where educators, counselors, business partners and community members understand the importance of investing in young people and helping them make the connection between their school experience and their career choice.”