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“Opportunity Connect”: Bridging Education and Employment Through A Unique Pilot Initiative

Over the past number of years, we have seen increased interest in forward-thinking businesses working with innovative schools to expand students’ horizons. Both schools and businesses share a common goal: maximizing achievement and growth, educationally and occupationally.  Due to forecasted labor shortages, the need for connections between classrooms and businesses is heightened. But for the goal to be achieved, we need to overcome hurdles posed by the time-intensive nature of setting up these connections. We also must ensure that interactions are pedagogically sound and enjoyable for students. When these connections work out well, they can be the start of defined career pathways for young people.

In early 2018, leaders from the TwinWest Chamber of Commerce, in association with Hopkins, Minnetonka, St. Louis Park and Wayzata public schools, as well as Lionsgate Academy, piloted a regional talent initiative named “Opportunity Connect.” The initiative is designed to help businesses engage with area students and teachers both inside and outside classrooms.

TwinWest is hoping to retain our area’s tremendous talent not only by increasing the number of classroom visits by business leaders and professionals but doing so in ways that align closely with teachers’ curricula. Dedicated individuals from business have provided outstanding experiences such as:

    • A computer science class learning from Optum on how big data is used, and also learning how to get a first internship.
    • Healthcare students shadowing professionals at Fairview and Tria.
    • An engineering class in which students learn from, as well as make presentations to, experts from Emerson Automation Systems.
    • Students in a business class hearing from and advised by entrepreneurs.
    • Manufacturing and engineering teachers visiting the Metropolitan Council and Liberty Diversified Inc., learning how their schools’ curricula are incorporated on a day-to-day basis.
    • Special education and science teachers learning about innovations at HealthEast and how they might incorporate such ideas in their schools.

 

A pilot teacher externship program with the Hennepin West Consortium yielded positive results in 2018, with anticipated expansion of externships in 2019.

Joint internships also have been created at TwinWest through a Youth Skills Training grant by the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry. All of these experiences are designed to create a local talent community that fosters a skilled future workforce. These career pathways help students consider options early in their decision-making process. By discovering these skills and opportunities in high school, students can explore entering the workforce right after high school graduation or pursue advanced degrees based on the career they have experienced. What do the results look like so far?

In the last fall semester, TwinWest worked with districts to identify 29 pilot teachers who are participating in the initiative. Over 670 (non-discrete) students worked with 75 guest professionals both in classrooms and during on-site visits. Initial findings include:

  • 84 percent of students said they learned something new.
  • 72 percent said it was an enjoyable/engaging experience.
  • 77 percent learned about the company or industry.
  • 48 percent were more or much more likely to work for that company or industry.
  • Businesses gave their experience a median rating of 9.5 out of 10.
  • And teachers rated their experience a 10 out of 10 median score.

Key findings also include the numerous “wins” as seen in the chart below.

The goal of Opportunity Connect is to be the “glue” that brings education and employers together. As noted above, minimizing the time associated with creating these critical connections is vital to the initiative. In doing so, we have explored the development of a beta technology platform to make these connections as quickly and effectively as possible. (A “beta technology platform” is a tool designed to expedite connections between educators and employers. Think about what Uber has done for drivers and people needing rides.) When discussed with numerous stakeholders, the concept of a beta platform was eagerly received. Critical human resources are also required to foster and curate this new endeavor between education and business.

 

Brent Veninga is an educational consultant working in collaboration with the TwinWest Chamber of Commerce.

Both our pilot schools and TwinWest have invested in this initiative to get it started this school year. We will continue fostering relationships with outstanding businesses and promoting it at our pilot schools and, we hope, expanding it to several other districts in the TwinWest area.  We are testing our beta platform to enhance connectivity and working with our boards and board members in promoting this regional effort with businesses and schools. We hope to do more to bring our education and business communities together. As one business leader shared in his feedback: “Don’t stop. Keep pushing this program. There is so much work to be done. Help kids find something they like, and they can find a company they love.”

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