How Can Communities Align Student Skills with Workforce Needs?

December 2016

Many regions are experiencing a gap between student skills and industry needs, resulting in an increased number of unfilled jobs. Barriers to degree attainment and skills training among minority student populations widen these gaps. However, communities can work together to increase the number and diversity of qualified graduates by increasing access to career and technical education (CTE) and early professional experiences, exposure that is particularly important for underserved students. Students who participate in CTE programs are more likely to be engaged in content that is interesting and relevant to their desired career path. Additionally, integrating academic course work with career training allows students to earn credentials for desirable skills, thus making them more likely to land high-quality employment and advance in their career.

Read this chapter for an introduction to effective strategies that improve students’ skills for their future careers. Learn how the Community Foundation of the Ozarks partners with Ozarks Technical Community College to strengthen career pathways in Springfield, Missouri and discover new tools and resources to align student skills with workforce needs in your community.

Sector-Based Career Pathways: Does your community want to create a path for students to easily transition from high school to college to career? Strong community partnerships are key to building successful pathways programs that include both rigorous academic course work and job training. Sector-based career pathways programs align curriculum with broad industry needs, rather than specific occupations. Thus, students can develop desirable skills that are transferable to a number of in-demand jobs.

Career Academies: Does your community want to align high school curriculum with skills needed for in-demand jobs and postsecondary education? The career academy model for CTE places high school students in small learning communities. Students take a combination of academic and career-specific course work leading to a job certification or credit toward a two- or four-year degree. Those who participate in career academies typically experience income gains and are better prepared for further postsecondary education.

Early College High Schools: Does your community want to offer rigorous college-level course work that enables students to earn college credit and develop skills for in-demand jobs? Early college high schools give students the opportunity to simultaneously complete high school, college, and career training courses. Students gain exposure to postsecondary education by taking classes on a college campus and early work experience through hands-on training with local employers. This strategy accelerates students’ time to postsecondary degree completion and improves career readiness for in-demand jobs.

Apprenticeships and Internships: Does your community want to provide students with hands-on work experience to develop skills for their future career? Apprenticeships and internships help students develop the technical and soft skills necessary for a successful transition into the workplace by gaining exposure to different career options, job roles, and company cultures. Nationally, students perceive that participating in internships and professional experiences during college would improve their workforce readiness. Employers also benefit from apprenticeship and internship programs by increasing their access to a trained, engaged, and diverse workforce. By developing an agreement to support students with Federal Work Study funds, institutions and employers can increase access to off-campus internship opportunities for underserved students.

Springfield, Missouri: Aligning Student Skills with Workforce Needs through Career Pathways Programs

IHEP spoke with Francine Pratt from Springfield Project 2025, the community’s higher education attainment initiative, and Cindy Stephens and Jeanie Atwell from Ozarks Technical Community College (OTC) to learn about the Health Professions Academy, one of several career pathways programs in Springfield implemented through the OTC Middle College. By participating in the program, high school juniors and seniors can earn credit toward an associate’s degree, intern with a local employer, and receive support to continue their education toward a bachelor’s degree at a local university. Read this interview to find out how Springfield Project 2025 has established several workforce alignment programs that prepare students for high-demand jobs in the community.


IHEP: Can you describe what led Springfield Project 2025 to pursue the career pathway initiative and its Health Professions Academy in particular?

Health care is the largest employer industry in our city, including hospitals, dentists’ and doctors’ offices, nursing homes, and other allied health care services. Our city has two major top 100 hospitals that each employ about 5,000 to 8,000 individuals, even though the metropolitan area is barely 300,000 people. Given that health care is a leading industry and we have a fairly high poverty rate in the area, we were looking for ways to identify individuals who have great promise and who could be successful in this field, but because of financial reasons need to quickly finish a degree and make a good salary to support their family and pay for other expenses.

We started by looking at the education gaps and changing demographics in the city, broken down by race and ethnicity, poverty, educational attainment, employment, and several other demographic characteristics. With this analysis, we were able to show city officials another way to look at Springfield.

IHEP: Did you use any data to identify the needs in your community?

In order to determine the need for the Health Professions Academy and other career pathways programs, we relied on data from our Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, which a group called the Southwest Missouri Council of Governments oversees. Their gap analysis helped us identify where the jobs were and where skilled workers were lacking. As a state, we have more people retiring than we have folks entering the workforce, so we need to be very intentional in making sure that our best and brightest get an opportunity to succeed even if they have limited access to dollars. The Health Professions Academy is one academy where we are providing the basic-level courses that would be necessary, such as anatomy and physiology, regardless of the field in which the student decides to specialize. So students get a broad academic foundation while also being exposed to a variety of specialized skills for their future career.

IHEP: How did you identify your target population?

We started by looking at the education gaps and changing demographics in the city, broken down by race and ethnicity, poverty, educational attainment, employment, and several other demographic characteristics. With this analysis, we were able to show city officials another way to look at Springfield. When you talk about the city’s overall 26 percent poverty rate and that only 33 percent of the residents have a postsecondary degree, you do not get the full picture of poverty and education for Springfield’s minority populations. When we looked at the data, the poverty rate among African Americans was almost 48 percent and almost 43 percent among Hispanics, compared with 38 percent among Caucasians. These were some of the gaps we wanted to address.


IHEP: How did the Springfield community develop partnerships to improve career and technical education?

[FRANCINE PRATT]: We had different programs that were not connected before working with Lumina and the CPA initiative. Our current partnership grew out of an existing program, Drury Scholars, which brought students to Drury University for a week over the summer to show them what it’s like to be on a college campus and show them that they did belong on campus. For a lot of the students, they did not believe college was option, and they did not believe getting a job in the area was an option either because of historical racial issues shared with them from family generation to generations.

I was working with the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce and the city looking at poverty and unemployment, and we saw education as the common connecting issue. We started working with employers to create apprenticeships and internships in order to expose students to the skills they need to fill positions. It was a win–win for employers and students—employers had the jobs but didn’t have job applicants with the right skills, and students felt that no one would give them a chance without the right skills for a job.

IHEP: Why did Springfield Project 2025 and the Chamber of Commerce partner with OTC’s Middle College?

In 2007, OTC started the Middle College program to prevent at-risk high school juniors and seniors from dropping out by exposing them to college and more contextualized learning experiences based on their interests. It was designed as a full-day program for juniors and seniors. Many of the students were facing several barriers to graduation, such as having dependent children of their own or incarcerated parents. These students honestly needed to be making money instead of going to school. Middle College provided them a way to get high school credit, college credit, and part-time work so that they could meet their financial needs.

Meanwhile, the gap between trained, qualified people and available jobs continued to grow as more large companies—especially in health care—arrived in Springfield. That’s why the Chamber, city leaders, and the local hospital realized that they needed to do something about workforce alignment and looked to partnering with Middle College.

IHEP: How has the Health Professions Academy been successful in aligning its work with other stakeholders in the community?

The Health Professions Academy has been successful because Middle College already had a formal partnership agreement and a memorandum of understanding with K-12 superintendents from Green County, Everton, and several other cities in the region. These established relationships were key—ground had already been plowed, several fields had been sown, and lots of crops had been harvested before starting the Health Professions Academy.


IHEP: Can you explain how you implement the Middle College programs and specifically the Health Professions Academy?

We implement the programs in partnership with Springfield Public Schools. From the five high schools in the district, we receive students in their junior and senior years to attend Middle College. We want to provide students with purpose and meaning to their education, because that’s what we found some high schools are missing. Students don’t always find purpose or meaning in abstract concepts, such as algebra, but if they get the experience at Middle College by taking contextualized classes for the career that they’re interested in, they gain a deeper understanding of the academic concepts and develop career goals.

IHEP: How does the Health Professions Academy contextualize students’ learning for their career interests?

During their junior and senior year, students take a combination of core high school courses—such as English, math, and science—and career-centered college-level classes on medical terminology, CPR, and nutrition. We work to personalize each student’s experience based on skill level and interest. For example, students who want to be doctors will take different classes than students who want to be surgical technicians or dental hygienists. To gain early work experience, all students have the opportunity to do an internship during both years they’re enrolled. In addition, we counsel students to provide them with information about what courses they’ll need to take to prepare for specialized programs and pursue a college degree. Students graduate from the Health Professions Academy with about 40 college credit hours, which is close to the 60 credits needed for an associate’s degree. Students are earning these credits at no cost and it’s an excellent jump-start into college.

IHEP: What credentials do students earn through the program?

The Health Professions Academy is designed to lead to an accelerated Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degree in the health professions within three to five years after completing high school. Students who finish the program will have been exposed to enough courses to decide whether they want to serve as a dental assistant, as a nurse practitioner, as a phlebotomist, or in some other health profession. Our ultimate goal is that they finish a degree at OTC and then continue their education at the neighboring Missouri State University to earn a B.S. degree in health science. We are establishing a full pathway from high school to the community college to the university and then on to a career.


IHEP: How can other communities design a career pathways program to have a meaningful impact?

The foremost principle is to make sure that you are focusing on a pathway for jobs that exist in your community. If you live in Wichita, for example, aircraft maintenance would be a high-demand field. But that would not work at all in Springfield; our airport is not that big. Pathways should be driven by the employment in the area.

IHEP: What other best practices are key to bring a program to scale?

Maintaining strong partnerships is very important. All of our pathways programs give students the opportunity to do an internship through one of our partners in the business community. Another key is having a college that will act as a strong community partner and help award students with college credit. Our students finish the program with college credit, and statistics show that a person with any amount of college credit will make more money than someone with just a high school diploma.

Communities also need to be aware of barriers that face low-income students. Even if students are high functioning and well adjusted, they may still face challenges. For example, Middle College provides wraparound services to make sure students have access to transportation, food, and clothing. Overcoming student barriers was the most important piece of all. If there’s a problem, we’re going to solve it.

Middle College provides wraparound services to make sure students have access to transportation, food, and clothing. Overcoming student barriers was the most important piece of all. If there’s a problem, we’re going to solve it.


OTC Middle College: Career and Technical Education Memorandum of Understanding

Use this MOU as a template to formalize partnerships between higher education institutions and K-12 systems for creating a career academy or other CTE program.

Springfield Project 2025: Employer Survey

Use this survey as a model for communities to identify employer needs and share with education institutions in order to align academic programs and better prepare students for available jobs in the area.

Career Pathways Toolkit: A Guide for System Development

This toolkit from the U.S. Department of Labor is intended to support state-level partners implementing a Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act Unified Plan. The toolkit highlights key elements of career pathways and a number of tools and resources to facilitate the development of new programs.

Employer Engagement Toolkit: From Placement to Partners

Jobs for the Future’s toolkit provides information for workforce training and education institutions on how to develop deeper relationships with employers. The toolkit includes a number of strategies on how to move beyond “job placement” to “employer engagement.”

Federal Student Aid Handbook, Chapter 2: Operating a Federal Work Study Program

The U.S. Department of Education’s handbook for financial aid administrators highlights how Federal Work Study funds can be used to finance student work opportunities both on and off campus. This chapter includes details about implementing an FWS program to fund off-campus internship opportunities and a sample FWS agreement to be used by institutions and employers.

Additional Resources

New Pathways to Career and College: Examples, Evidence, and Prospects [2015: MDRC]

This report from MDRC details key characteristics of career pathways models and provides evidence of successful models being implemented in the field. The report focuses on programs that provide both technical training and academic rigor in order to prepare students for both positive employment and educational outcomes.

Recasting American Apprenticeship: A Summary of the Barriers to Apprenticeship Expansion Research Project [2015: The Aspen Institute]

This report analyzes several opportunities for improvement in efforts to expand apprenticeship programs in high-demand industries, such as IT, advanced manufacturing, and healthcare. Areas of focus include engaging employers, building program capacity, and equity and inclusion.

The Human Factor: The Hard Time Employers Have Finding Soft Skills [2015: Burning Glass Technologies]

Burning Glass analyzed real time data from job postings across the country and found that soft skills, in addition to technical skills, are valued by employers but hard to find in employees. This report presents the data and implications for job seekers and employers in today’s labor market.