How can community partners ensure that college success includes career supports, particularly for disconnected students?

February 2016

For regions to thrive and grow, they require an educated workforce whose skills align with available job opportunities and meet employer demands. The quality of life these places afford residents also make them strong attractors for talented newcomers.

Yet even successful regions often include thousands of people who find themselves disconnected from the education-to-career pathway. Failure to complete high school or stopping out from college restricts many people from job opportunities that provide a path to the middle class and wages able to support a family.

Efforts to re-engage these students can result in significant dividends for students, their families, and their communities. Educators, civic leaders, and regional employers can cocreate education-to-career pathways that offer people the chance to get back on track. Below are a few examples of pathway components that can help once-disconnected students thrive and grow.

Flexible and Accessible Pathways: Does your community want to promote access to education and training opportunities for people who are disconnected from school and career? Many people experience personal, financial, or other barriers that may hinder their ability to re-engage. Think about designing flexible pathways that offer “multiple onramps” to help students get back on track. Be sure to consider student input when developing strategies to widen access.

Work-Based Learning: Does your community want to provide young people with opportunities to explore the world of work while still in school? Job tours, internships, job shadowing, and apprenticeships offer multiple benefits to students. These programs can provide the opportunity to explore prospective career paths, make connections with employers, and learn more about workplace norms. Involvement may also further encourage student persistence. The business community can help by identifying and sponsoring internship placements, hosting job shadowing and tours, and providing coaches to help students hone interview skills and develop resumes.

Align Pathway Destinations With Employer Needs: Does your community want to help disconnected students acquire the training and skills needed to access high-need job opportunities? Regional employers can play an important role in cocreating pathways that deliver graduates prepared to respond to employer demands. Consider how available data sources on high-growth job areas and labor market needs can inform your decision making.  

Provide Adult Learners With Accelerated Pathways to Postsecondary Credentials: Does your community want to help adult learners earn college credit while completing GED requirements? Adult education programs that allow students to enroll in courses at technical colleges while completing their GED speed the time to degree while accelerating access to jobs in a range of high-demand fields.

This chapter features an interview with leaders from Made in Durham—a public–private partnership in Durham, North Carolina—who work to re-engage young people who are disconnected from both school and career opportunities. This chapter also includes several resources that this partnership used to organize its work, set goals, and deploy resources. These resources include a 2012 report that described the problem of disconnected youth in the Durham region and a policy brief outlining Made in Durham’s education-to-career strategy.

This chapter ends with a list of additional resources you can use to find more information about intervention strategies that respond to disconnected students as well as how best to develop education-career pathways. 

Made in Durham, Durham, North Carolina: Building Community Partnerships in Support of Connecting Young People With Careers

  • Lydia Newman, Youth Transitions Strategist, Made in Durham
  • Laura Wendell, Business Engagement Strategist, Made in Durham

IHEP spoke with Lydia Newman and Laura Wendell from Made in Durham to learn about how their public–private partnership—made up of educators, civic leaders, and the business sector—is working to ensure that all of Durham’s young people have graduated college and found career employment by age 25. Newman and Wendell describe the catalyst for this partnership, how it uses data to develop education-to-career pathways, and its focus on re-engaging young people who are completely disconnected from school and career opportunities. The interview illustrates an example of a promising practice in developing intervention strategies informed by assessment of a targeted population’s needs.


IHEP: Can you explain why the Made in Durham initiative developed?

[Lydia Newman] Made in Durham is a community partnership that brings together educators, the business community, government leaders, and community organizations. We’ve mobilized around an ambitious shared vision: that all young people in Durham will complete a postsecondary credential and earn a wage sufficient to support a family by age 25.

A 2012 report by a community organization called MDC provided the initial catalyst for our work. This report found that approximately 40% of Durham’s young people were outside what we’ve come to think of as the education-to-career system. This population includes students who have dropped out of high school or are at risk of doing so, as well as young people who aren’t currently pursuing any further education, training, or employment. Durham is in a fast-growing region with great alternative educational programs, colleges and universities, and job opportunities. We estimate that employers will create more than 23,000 middle-skill jobs over the next 10 years. If we don’t act, these young people won’t be able to take advantage of the opportunities Durham has to offer them.

We created a task force made up of civic, community, and business leaders to tackle the problem. They decided what was needed was better coordination and alignment between educational institutions; data-supported decision making; career, internship, and training programs; and employment opportunities. And that’s why Made in Durham was created.

IHEP: Does Made in Durham focus on supporting any specific student populations?

[Lydia Newman] We’ve been very intentional in stating that we serve all Durham young people, with special attention to what we call opportunity youth—young people between the ages of 14 and 24 who are really disconnected from both school and career employment.

We’re in the process of developing a re-engagement strategy to better serve these students. To that end, we want to better understand the students currently served by Durham’s alternative education programs. What kinds of students are thriving in these programs and who isn’t being served as well? What do we need to do to re-engage our opportunity youth? Is it just a matter of adding capacity to existing programs, or do we need to imagine something entirely different? We don’t want to be in the business of creating solutions that don’t fit the population we’re trying to serve. 


IHEP: Can you explain how Made in Durham’s partners are working together to build education-to-career pathways?

[Laura Wendell] It’s an incredibly exciting time for this initiative. NCWorks (our regional workforce group) has just issued a set of criteria for certifying education-to-career pathways. It’s having a tremendous impact on how Durham works with other communities to develop more regionally focused pathways aligned to employer needs. Made in Durham is helping by bringing together education, workforce development, and business partners from throughout the region to support the pathway initiative. We’re also involving young people as cocreators. We have a youth network made up of about 20 young people who will help shape the pathways we’re developing. So far, their insights have been especially helpful with regard to how young people learn about the world of work, who their key influencers are, and how their families, schools, and communities can best support them.

[Lydia Newman] We’ve learned from this youth network that these pathways need to be flexible to be responsive to young peoples’ circumstances. We need multiple access points so that a young parent who left high school early can return, graduate from high school, go on to college, and start a career. And I agree with Laura: Feedback from engaged employers is really critical so that we can provide students with the training and experience that make them good hires. Right from the start we’ve had a huge commitment from the business community to generate work-based learning opportunities. Employers really are key partners for us in a lot of ways. Their perspective absolutely informs pathway design, training, and program criteria. Success here absolutely relies on developing pathways that produce graduates who employers actually want to hire. If we’re successful, the curriculum informing these pathways won’t look all that different from what employers would have created themselves in developing the kind of employee they’re looking for.

[Laura Wendell] The program is growing really quickly. We started with one initial pathway in Durham linking four schools (an elementary school, middle school, high school, and community college) and focused on health and life science. As we expand into a more comprehensive, regional program, we’re also identifying best practices for how employers engage with schools and communities—from mentoring, afterschool programs, and community lab programs to job shadowing, company tours, internships, and apprenticeships. We are doing this through mapping the landscape of companies offering work-based learning opportunities. The first step will be a meeting with our education partners to determine which companies are most deeply engaged in their programs right now. We will use the results from that process, as well as the connections we have made through our work to date, to identify companies leading the way in work-based learning. We will then assemble an action team of those groundbreaking employers to help us develop a strategy for supporting, expanding, and scaling their work-based learning. The action team will also help us promote the benefits of work-based learning to other companies through established peer networks and other channels. It’s exciting to see our community invest in the intersection between classroom learning and the world of work, and how that investment will motivate our young people.

[Lydia Newman] In time, we intend for Made in Durham to be a central point of contact between employers and education/training providers. Our staff will play a facilitative role at every stage of the pathway—educating stakeholders about labor market trends, working with employers to identify and build work experience opportunities, and helping employers become “youth ready.” 

IHEP: How are you using data to inform development of these pathways?

[Lydia Newman] Many of our partners already gather data that they use to track student progression and graduation rates. They made these data available when we first started another program called Durham Futures and we’ve used it when we’ve applied for grants.

[Laura Wendell] Ensuring our education-to-career pathways are data informed is one of NCWorks’ certification criteria. In this context they mean data on labor markets and projections as to future high-growth job areas. We pull data from labor reports available from North Carolina’s Department of Labor. We also run focus groups with area employers to complement what the reports tell us. The focus group participants talk with us about their most pressing labor needs, how they account for the difficulty in filling these positions, the positions’ salary ranges, and their future projections for the labor market. We use these data to help us zero in on the focus and destination of the pathways we’re developing.

Employers really are key partners for us in a lot of ways. Their perspective absolutely informs pathway design, training, and program criteria. Success here absolutely relies on developing pathways that produce graduates who employers actually want to hire.

Our pathways are structured around particular occupations within career clusters or sectors. An ongoing challenge for us is getting to the right level of granularity in identifying a set of competencies and skills with sufficient labor market demand to justify including a credential in the pathway.

We also want to measure the impact work-based learning has on skill development for young people. Specifically, does the experience influence career exploration, how students make meaning of the skills and experience they’re developing, and how they present themselves on resumes and in interviews? We know testing can help assess how well students have mastered content, but measuring skills acquisition and meaning making is more complex. We’d really welcome ideas and suggestions for how best to gather that kind of data.

All this matters because employers often use an earned credential plus so many years of experience as shorthand for the skills they’re looking for. I think this approach overlooks people who lack the credentials but have the skills and experience, and vice versa. So when we think about moving the needle on widening participation by young people, we have to think about assessing and improving soft skills and interviewing skills, and providing opportunities to address deficiencies.


IHEP: How is Made in Durham working to improve outcomes for young people?

[Lydia Newman] Made in Durham includes an opportunity youth action team, which we call Durham Futures. The team consists of three executive directors from three alternative education programs, senior-level administrators with the public school system, and representatives from our local community college. We have about 250 students enrolled in the alternative education programs. Our job is to help them navigate the education-to-career system.

Two previous reports helped guide our decision making as to how best to re-engage disconnected youth. The first report was released in 2008. It called attention to the degree to which young people in Durham are disconnected from education and career opportunities. The report provided specific data on population distribution, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, educational attainment, and unemployment. We used these data to identify demographically vulnerable groups and the circumstances correlated with disconnection. The report concluded that finding a way to help disconnected youth attain a postsecondary credential was our region’s ultimate challenge.

I previously mentioned the second report, which led to the creation of Made in Durham. It specifically recommended the development of an education-to-career system, led by a broad coalition of community partners and responsive to employer and labor market demand.

We’ve identified three intervention strategies to help us reach that goal. The first is to connect students with work-based learning opportunities, like an internship or a job tour. Seeing what it’s like to work at a company can help them better understand how classroom learning can affect life after high school and college. We started this program this past summer with 15 students. We’ll use what we’ve learned to grow the program this coming year.

The second strategy involves using funds from the United Way to create two positions. One position will be an employer engagement associate. This person’s role will be to ensure our young people are getting the work-based learning experiences they need, and that we’re building lasting relationships with employers and helping employers connect with educators. We’re also hiring a resource specialist who can provide career and college guidance and support—anything that can help students successfully transition to college, and then to persist and graduate. Three Durham alternative education schools will share these two positions. That’s an unprecedented arrangement for us. These schools hadn’t been working together prior to the formation of Made in Durham. Finally, we’re launching a program to identify peer and adult mentors who we can match with students in these three schools.

IHEP: What challenges have you encountered in developing the Made in Durham partnership?

[Laura Wendell] One challenge is that our partners collectively have a broad range of different interests and focuses involving our target population. Some focus specifically on court involvement and what to do about youth involved in the justice system. Others think about career and technical education and how to encourage students into careers in construction. Others want to focus on college access. Incorporating all of these perspectives into a shared vision for Durham’s young people is tricky, but each organization has a role to play.

[Lydia Newman] On a more day-to-day level, sometimes we encounter challenges in getting access to the data we feel we need to move the needle. The Durham Public Schools have to be mindful of FERPA [Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act] when sharing data. We’re also working through issues in getting data from our community college partners. But it’s nothing we can’t resolve because we have so many of the right people at the table. For example, our board and action team talked about the need to understand how and if young people are more successful when they receive more career counseling. The superintendent of schools, who is on the board, is now looking into how to use National Student Clearing House data to find more answers.


IHEP: What is your plan for assessing the effectiveness of Made in Durham’s efforts to improve outcomes for young people?

[Laura Wendell] It’s still early days for us in terms of assessment. We’re still developing and implementing our initial strategies. Of course, within our Durham Futures work, we can measure success by assessing student completion of a high school credential, then a postsecondary credential, and then getting a job. So there are some really nice, measurable outcomes there. As a whole, we’re looking at how we can incorporate continuous improvement practices, both into our work organizationally and into the work of the partnership across the board. We don’t want to wait until it’s time to publish an annual report before we learn how well we’re doing.

[Lydia Newman] Our partners were already doing their own individual evaluation work before Made in Durham began. Now that we have a collective vision, we need to determine the way we’re measuring our progress. We don’t want to be comparing apples to oranges. Our evaluative process still very much a work in progress.

IHEP: So what’s next?

[Laura Wendell] I think one important next step for us is to get vertical and horizontal alignment with our partners. We’ve got a clear vision with some important pieces in place, and Made in Durham is bringing partners to the table. But I think there’s work left to do with regard to complete system alignment. We’re hoping to access some technical assistance from Lumina to help us build deeper understanding among our partners of how to work in a collective impact environment. I sometimes feel like we’re building a bridge by starting at both banks, and now we’ve got to get that bridge to meet in the middle. And we’re pretty sure we’ll get there, but until then we need to continue evaluating and measuring our progress.

[Lydia Newman] We’ve had boots on the ground from the beginning, so it’s important for us to help our partners also see themselves in this work and the contributions they can make. I think it’s going to take a lot for people to fully understand the system change that will be necessary. And that isn’t just the view from the top, like when a CEO says she understands what role her organization can play. We need to help that CEO figure out how to lead the change so that the entire organization is invested.

[Laura Wendell] Exactly. When we have leaders around the table thinking about this problem, we need to ensure they have what they need to build our shared goals into their organizations’ planning processes. We haven’t fully accomplished this yet.

IHEP: Finally, what advice do you have for other communities hoping to learn from Made in Durham?

[Lydia Newman] It’s going to take a whole community pulling together to get us to our goal. I think it’s been extremely important to make sure to get buy-in, to make sure everyone feels like they’re a part of the process. Conversely, leaving some groups with the sense that they weren’t part of the process will cost you down the road. Right from the start, Made in Durham involved lots of different stakeholders across the board. When you’re trying to develop a collective impact organization, you spend a lot of time investing in the partnership and mobilizing the people involved. That’s really critical work. You’re going to need buy-in from your high schools, your community colleges, and the various organizations that touch the populations of interest if you want to move the needle.

I’ll also say that although it’s important to ensure everyone’s on the same page, feeling included, and being heard, it’s essential that you keep a laser focus on a shared vision that everyone is committed to working toward.

Working through dissent is a real strength of collective impact organizations. I think the end result is greater trust and investment. It’s not always comfortable, but if you don’t have someone in the room in dissent and asking hard questions, you probably don’t have all the right people around the table.

[Laura Wendell] I think that’s absolutely right. We’re working toward consensus, but it’s important to be prepared to sit with the dissenting voice in the room. We’ve learned so much from partners who were in disagreement. Working through dissent is a real strength of collective impact organizations. I think the end result is greater trust and investment. It’s not always comfortable, but if you don’t have someone in the room in dissent and asking hard questions, you probably don’t have all the right people around the table.

Chapter 2 Download


Disconnected Youth in the Research Triangle Region: An Ominous Problem Hidden in Plain Sight

This 2008 report by MDC investigates the phenomenon of “disconnected youth”—individuals ages 14 to 24 who are disconnected from both school and career opportunities. Researchers conducted an environmental scan—including interviews with civic, education, business, and government leaders and surveys of frontline social service providers—to better understand the problem. The report concludes with a set of recommended action steps to re-engage young people in education-to-career pathways.

Page length: 44

Made in Durham: Building an Education-to-Career System

Taking the recommendations from Disconnected Youth as a starting point, this 2012 policy paper provides program design recommendations for the development of education-to-career pathways, including goals, outcomes, structure, strategies, and prospective partners. The report serves as a useful blueprint for communities interested in developing public–private partnerships to re-engage disconnected youth.

Page length: 58

Additional Resources

Mentoring: At the Crossroads of Education, Business, and Community [2015: Ernst & Young & MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership]

This study reports on the benefits of business-sector involvement in mentoring programs for young people, provides a business case for corporate engagement, identifies promising practices and case studies drawn from current programs, and outlines a set of recommendations for future mentoring initiatives.

Education to Employment: Designing a System That Works [2012: McKinsey Center for Government]

This report takes an international and comparative approach to seeking better understanding of the problem of disconnected youth, including an analysis of over 100 education-to-career initiatives in 25 countries.

Findings From the Field: Regional Pathways to Prosperity Model Development [2014: North Carolina New Schools]

This brief describes efforts to develop pilot education-to-career pathways in two North Carolina regions. Each regional profile includes a list of key partners, initial findings, and lessons learned that are informing continued program development. The authors recommend using relevant data metrics and investments in cross-regional networks to share promising practices as future areas of focus.

Improved Adult Education Support Critical to Georgia’s Bottom Line [2015: Georgia Budget and Policy Institute]

Intended for policymakers, this report makes the case for additional public investment in adult education programs as a strategy to improve Georgia’s competitive economic standing while addressing a pervasive opportunity gap for adult learners. Included is a description of an initiative that provides students who lack a high school diploma the opportunity to enroll in technical college while completing the requirements for a GED.