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How Much is Too Much? | American Graduate

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“Our students are not widgets!” 

Certainly that is the sentiment of educators who see business involvement in schools as “putting in orders” for workers. Yet that refrain might be less common in an era when the whole notion of career and technical education is evolving way beyond shop class. 

Maybe that’s because each side understands its boundaries. Businesspeople and educators both say the same thing: Industry lays out the workforce needs; schools develop the curriculum. 

The video above, the final one in our opening series for American Graduate: Getting to Work, includes voices from a major regional employer as well as from K-12 and higher education.

"Getting to Work" with Northland CAPS at LMV | American Graduate

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“Robots may be taking over the world, but there’s got to be someone who builds them,” Meg Reinhardt says. 

And, thanks to on-the-job training she began in high school, Reinhardt plans to be one of the people who keep those robots going. Think you need a four-year college degree for that? Well, think again. 

Reinhardt, 19, is working toward an industrial maintenance certificate through an internship with LMV Automotive Systems in Liberty, Missouri. LMV is a division of Magna International, a global automotive supplier. The company launched its Liberty training center three years ago. 

She began working with LMV as part of the Northland Center for Advanced Professional Studies, which serves students in several school districts. 

LMV began working with Northland CAPS because it wanted a skilled workforce closer to home, said General Manager Chris Hinman. The partnership has worked; no more does LMV have to search far and wide for qualified employees. 

“You can see a (local) 19-year-old kid performing work that we would go out of the country to get people to perform,” Hinman said.

"Getting to Work" at Holland 1916 | American Graduate

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Holland 1916 is a North Kansas City, Missouri manufacturing company with a history that dates back to the earliest years of the 20th century. But it has not shied away from a new approach to recruiting employees and preparing the workforce of tomorrow. 

The company regularly hosts fourth-graders at its Burlington Street headquarters to illustrate the real-world applications of math. 

“Business is the primary consumer of what educators are producing — students,” CEO Mike Stradinger said. “So we need to be involved in the process, and we have for too long been silent.” 

That epiphany came at Holland 1916, Stradinger said, when the company experienced problems with the quantity and quality of available workers. 

“Manufacturing, like most businesses, is a people game,” Stradinger said, “and if we don’t have great people, we are not going to be a great company.” 

Holland 1916’s initial education foray came about five years ago with high school students. But after feedback from teachers, the company decided to catch kids as early as possible. They landed on fourth-graders because that is when they learn division. 

But partnering with education is not without its difficulties, Stradinger said, and that’s mainly because business operates at a very different pace. 

“Our customers are constantly giving us feedback: we want it faster, we want it to do this, we want it to be less expensive,” Stradinger said. 

But to educators, even annual changes can feel disruptive. “And trying to get those two to work together,” he said. “You have to overcome that challenge.”


Quick Ways to Good Money | American Graduate

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What would you say to making $18 per hour after less than half a year of post-secondary training? Or $35 an hour in a union job? Those aren’t hypotheticals. Workforce experts say those jobs exist in the Kansas City area, and workers are in demand. One of the biggest hurdles in matching people with those positions, observers said, is overcoming the stigma that has developed around blue collar professions like manufacturing and construction. 

How is it that such good jobs can have such a bad reputation?

Workforce Challenges in KC and Beyond: Videos | American Graduate

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This collection of videos accompanies the Workforce Challenges in KC and Beyond lesson plan featuring KCPT's American Graduate: Getting to Work series.

How Do Schools Prepare Students for the Digital Economy? | American Graduate

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Jeremy Bonneson, vice principal of Summit Technology Academy in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, asked curiousKC: “How do schools adapt to the ever-changing and disruptive nature of the workforce landscape for today’s digital economy?” 

The question was right in our wheelhouse because Kansas City PBS is examining local workforce development efforts through its participation in the national American Graduate project. It was also a big win for us because at curiousKC, we like to get the question asker involved in answering the inquiry, and Bonneson was on board with that. 

It all came together with a Facebook Live broadcast from Summit Tech., where Bonneson took part in a panel discussion with two other participants: Chayanne Sandoval-Williams is a Grandview High School senior, leader in her school’s robotics team, student at Summit Tech., and has plans to pursue a computer science degree. Amy Gum is a lead software engineer at Cerner Corp., and has mentored for FIRST Robotics, Girls in Tech and the Society of Women and Engineers. 

The panel’s discussion included how to create “two-way conversations” between high school students and science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) professionals and advice for students thinking about a career in STEM.

Kansas City vs. Peer Cities | American Graduate

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Creating an Austin, Texas-type buzz in the Kansas City area means establishing the 21st century workforce that can succeed in the 21st century workplace, said Sheri Gonzales Warren, an economic development official with the Mid-America Regional Council. 

“If we do a good job of this,” Gonzales Warren said, “ this would be one of those hotbed places where people come. Where young people, in particular, go, ‘I am going to go there, because I know I won’t have any problem finding work.’ We want to be that place.” 

To spur that along, the business community in 2014 launched KC Rising. This road map to long-term prosperity, the group says, “is regional in focus, but global in perspective, targeting high growth in trade, people and ideas.” 

This data-heavy effort benchmarks our region against 30 other peer metros, and the people part is where workforce development fits in. 

Watch the video above to see where the Kansas City region is losing the race and to discover what people are doing to build up its human capital.

Making the Case for "Workforce Development" | American Graduate

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Is it possible to establish a link between the U.S. civil rights movement and the fall of the Berlin Wall? 

You can, as it turns out, when it comes to job training and career readiness. The video above traces that history, and brings into focus the nebulous term “workforce development.” 

This introductory piece kicks off a six-part video series that will examine career and tech education in the Kansas City region. 

One of the key themes will be the push and pull between making schools mere conduits for employers versus institutions that turn out solid, informed citizens. Or, can they be both?

"Getting to Work" at the Independence, Missouri School District | American Graduate

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As a newly minted graduate of Truman High School, Shelby Fordham already has her career path set: earn a doctorate in economics, and then help guide the nation’s economy by working at the Federal Reserve. 

She attributed that clarity to her experience with the Independence School District’s high school academies, which the district implemented in the 2016-2017 school year. 

Fordham interacted with the business community as part of her work at All Things Independence, the student-run store that is part of the career-oriented model, and through that, she attended a conference where she heard a presentation by an economist. 

“I just realized through listening to him speak that that was exactly what I wanted to do,” Fordham said. “Being able to see somebody model exactly the career that I wanted, exactly the thinking, the speaking — everything about it just spoke to me.” 

The academies, which operate at all three of the district’s high schools, mimic a college setup, where students pursue a major, or “pathway,” as they are called in Independence district model. Nearly three dozen pathways operate within the five academies: Public Services, STEM, Arts & Education, Business, and Industrial Technology. 

The district offers more than 90 courses for college credit, with nearly 400 credit hours available, so students can earn their associates degree while still in high school. 

But the academy model is not just geared toward college-bound students, said Superintendent Dale Herl. The pathways also allow students to pursue an industry-recognized credential (IRC) that allows them to go straight into the workforce. One such credential is a certification offered through Cisco, the computer network and IT company based in Silicon Valley.

 A member of the business community introduced Herl to the academy model, and that is how Independence came to be part of a network of districts around the country put together by Ford Next Generation Learning. 

One of the best ways to think about the academies, Herl said, is to consider two students in the same class who are interested in computer science. 

“One student may say, ‘You know what, college isn’t for me, I am going to get an IRC in Cisco networking, (working) right beside another student that says, ‘I really want to get a computer science degree.’”

Building a Better Workforce | American Graduate

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There is a lot of talk in workforce development circles about “middle skills” jobs, career opportunities that fall between minimum-wage positions and others that require at least a four-year degree. 

But Ryan Meador has a different phrase for that wide swath of workers in the center of those two occupational poles. He calls them the “meaty middle,” and he works a lot with that population as dean of student development and enrollment management at the Business and Technology Campus of Metropolitan Community College in Kansas City, Missouri. 

That’s the group of high school students — perhaps as many as three quarters of them — that falls between the standouts and potential dropouts. 

“These are the individuals that are best for going into programs where there’s practical application,” Meador said. “We’re going to teach you the skills that you need, and we’re going to get you into good paying jobs. …. They’re the ones who have opportunities, who have the skills and ability to be successful, but don’t have what it takes to drive it on their own.” 

And it’s those students who are prime candidates to take advantage of what the workforce development community describes as “stackable credentials.” That’s where a student earns an industry certification, in say, IT security, and then builds upon that skill up through community college and then a four-year institution. (For more on that, see the video above.) 

Only about a third of the open jobs in Kansas City require a bachelor’s degree or higher, Meador said. 

One of his best real-world examples of succeeding through stacking is a Kansas City Power & Light executive, who now has a master’s degree, but who got in with the company after going through MCC’s program for linemen. KCP&L paid for much of his schooling 

In today’s world, Meador said, healthcare is one of the best industries suited to stacking credentials. 

For every doctor, he said, there are about two nurses that have bachelor’s degrees and there’s about six other support staff that have somewhere between a high school degree and associate’s degree. Others with more limited training include phlebotomists and billing and coding staff. 

Dr. Doug Girod is looking at workforce development from a different vantage point than Meador, but as the former executive vice chancellor of the University of Kansas Medical Center, he certainly shares the viewpoint about the healthcare field. Girod is now chancellor of the University of Kansas. 

The U.S. is short about 50,000 physicians, he said. And there are manpower shortages in just about any healthcare-related field, he said, from physical therapists to lab personnel. 

Girod has also been a leader within KC Rising, a business-led initiative to accelerate economic growth within the region. So, he has thought about education and workforce development from a variety of perspectives. 

“It’s really a matter of creating connectivity,” Girod said. “So, reaching further into high school, if not middle school, and helping students understand pathways and what those pathways look like, creating those pathways, and then making them continuous.”

Schools Tackling the Soft Skills Deficit | American Graduate

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Educators around the region are implementing project- and career-oriented learning to engage kids. But in the Center School District, at least, another key constituency is excited too.

Neal Weitzel is the director of college and career readiness in the district, which is located in Kansas City, Missouri, and he recounted parents’ reaction at a recent orientation for its Center Professional Studies program.

“When I just would ask them afterwards how did it go, they felt like they knew what their student was doing. They felt like there was a purpose behind the courses their student was taking,” Weitzel said.

That felt good, he said, “because the hard part with education right now, is ‘What is my student learning? What are they gaining here?’”

Those are valid concerns because local businesses have similar questions about their potential workforce. And, as the video above notes, industry is telling educators that graduates need better “soft skills,” such as critical thinking and adaptability, that vocationally focused coursework provides.

This type of curriculum, referred to today as “career and technical education,” is a modernized version of what used to be known simply as “vocational education.” The latter term developed a second-class reputation as a track for kids who were not cut out for college, even though voc ed students could pursue solidly middle class professions.

CTE leaders like Weitzel stress that their programs are agnostic when it comes to college versus career.

“What we’re trying to do is make sure that every student receives a skill set, or an opportunity, or a learning experience that will help support whatever they want to achieve when they leave our district,” he said. Whether that means college or a job is a decision left up to the student and their parents.

And that leads to another feature of CTE: stackable credentials.

Take, for instance, someone who wants to become a nurse. Through a program like Center Professional Studies, the student might become qualified to work as a certified nursing assistant right out of high school. From there, while the student is earning money, they can continue their education to become a full-fledged nurse with a four-year degree or beyond.

What it all boils down to, Weitzel said, is providing students with solid early professional skills that will help them be employable no matter what path they take after high school. “That choice,” he said, “will be theirs to determine.”