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Understanding Today’s Workforce: Connecting Educators with Industry 

By Terrie Rathburn, Education Specialist
 

In 2005, the S.C. Education and Economic Development Act (EEDA) established “Personal Pathways to Success”, providing K-12 students with layers of opportunities to prepare to enter today’s modern workforce.  From career awareness in elementary school to career exploration in middle school and career preparation in high school, today’s students are afforded many opportunities to connect their academic experiences to their future careers.   

In Promising Practices for Strengthening the Regional STEM Workforce Development Ecosystem, the National Academy of Sciences (2016) notes that “employers are increasingly focusing on the skills and abilities new hires possess” and “there is a growing need for individuals who apply STEM knowledge and skills in technologically sophisticated occupations that require a facility with STEM concepts” (p. 2). These skills and abilities are identified in the S.C. Profile of the Graduate as Life and Career Characteristics and World Class Skills.  Although most educators recognize and apply these abilities within their academic setting, “the typical math teacher knows very little about how math is used in engineering or even in basic construction” (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2016, p. 73).  How might educators connect with local industry to better understand the workforce requirements of their graduates? 

During Summer 2021, nineteen educators from six school districts in the Western Piedmont Education Consortium, with the support of the S.C. Department of Commerce and Piedmont Technical College, set out to learn more about the workforce requirements of local businesses and industries. These educators used their summer “break” to participate in an on-site workplace immersion experience where they learned about the types of skills and abilities their students might need to prosper in the local workforce.  According to Matt Wiggins, Upper Savannah Regional Workforce Advisor, “The goal was to have educators gain a better understanding of what takes place within the walls of many of our area employers. They can then both develop more applicable curriculum, as well as have more informed daily conversations with students about how to succeed in these work environments.” 

Some of their key learnings: 

  • “Soft skills are essential for job success.” 

  • “Flexibility is important in any career field.” 

  • “Manufacturing plants are full of amazing technology, and the machines do much of the work. “ 

  • “Manufacturing jobs pay well and have great benefits!” 

  • “Analyzing and interpreting data is an essential skill.” 

  • “Communication is key to success.” 

  • “Collaboration and teamwork are essential.” 

  • “Problem solving:  knowing how to catch errors before thousands of dollars are gone.” 

When asked how they might incorporate their workplace immersion experience into their classroom, one educator responded, “Interpersonal skills are essential.  Being open minded, sharing ideas, opinions and respecting the opinions of others.  Good communication is important as well.  It is important to be able to clearly communicate about your job and responsibilities.” 

Each educator created a lesson plan to connect their learning from the workplace experience to their classrooms.  Some examples of connections made:  

  • A math lesson where students read and record weight measurements to solve workplace related problems. 

  • An English lesson where students observe professionals within their school building to summarize daily activities and communicate written information to a supervisor. 

  • A Spanish language lesson where students use vocabulary related to health and the medical field to translate communications between doctors and patients. 

  • A math lesson where students analyze data on utilities to make recommendations to minimize cost and increase revenue. 

Getting Started:  Connecting Industry and Classrooms 
Although there may not be an opportunity to be immersed in the workplace, educators can still connect workforce expectations to your classroom.  Here are some ideas to get started:  

  • Build Relationships:  Get to know your local industry partners and your local technical college.  Invite them to school events or to serve on School Improvement Committees. 

  • Embed World Class Skills:  Focus on teaching students to collaborate and communicate as they learn.  Embed the competencies into every lesson.   

  • Understand How Content Connects to the Workplace:  Instead of thinking “this doesn’t apply to the real world” think “how do people in the workplace use this content?”  Start with the content you teach and ask people, “What does this look like in your work?” Interview an engineer before a STEM project or a community organizer before a social studies project. Teachers are content and pedagogy experts and industry partners are experts in the application of that knowledge. 

  • Invite Input:  Ask for industry input on curriculum connections to their workplace.  Survey parents about their workplace and ask what skills seem most important.  Use this input to refine lessons and prepare students for the workforce.  

  • Job Shadowing and Mentoring:  Connect with local industry for job shadowing and mentoring opportunities for students.  Let the students get to know the expectations through those who are part of the workforce.  
     

References:  

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2016). Developing a national STEM workforce strategy: A workshop summary. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi:10.17226/21900  

Promising Practices for Strengthening the Regional STEM Workforce Development Ecosystem. (2016). United States: National Academies Press. 

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