Nancy Huntington Stager
The Salem News
---- — In June, approximately 401,000 students, representing 42 percent of Massachusetts high school graduates, will forego the traditional four-year college track and decide to go to workforce preparation programs at two-year colleges or go directly to work. These work-bound graduates will undoubtedly face many challenges trying to pursue careers given continuing economic concerns and the ultra-competitive, highly educated workforce in our state. However, next year’s graduates could face an even tougher road. That’s because drastic cuts are planned for the state’s School to Career Connecting Activity budget — slashing it from 2012’s $2.75 million level to $750,000 for 2013.
School to Career Connecting programs are a collaborative effort between public and private entities and educators that provide high school students with paid internship opportunities in a wide variety of Massachusetts occupations and industries. Through this invaluable experience, students gain exposure to real-world work environments, learn professionalism, have the opportunity to take responsibility, and are empowered to build job readiness and leadership skills that can help them break into careers following high school.
At the heart of this effort — as well as many other adult work-assistance programs — are 16 local workforce investment boards in Massachusetts, including The North Shore Work Investment Board (NSWIB), which serves 19 communities like Gloucester, Salem, Lynn, Peabody and Saugus. In 2012, Massachusetts School to Career programs placed 9,800 students in internships at 3,500 employer sites, with NSWIB alone getting 489 teens working at nearly 200 companies. While impressive, this is a reduction from 2007 levels, where funding was higher and where as a result 17,500 found work at at 6,500 employer sites.
With the proposed cuts of more than 70 percent in state funding for School to Career programs for 2013, we are headed in the wrong direction. If our School to Career programs have to operate with even lower budgets they will be prevented from identifying and brokering an effective level of connections between schools, students and employers. The bottom line result will be a drastic reduction in high school students getting real work experience and a missed opportunity for local companies to tap into part of their next generation of potential employees.
This is already an issue with the number of jobs for state’s teens being slimmer then ever. According to a recent study by Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies, in 2012 only 26 percent of the state’s teens found themselves able to obtain employment during an average month. This was the lowest state teen employment rate recorded since this data began to be tracked 50 years ago. Worse yet, fewer than one in seven Massachusetts low-income high school teens worked in 2011.
While many teens want and need to be on the job, the combination of low numbers of opportunities and strong competition from unemployed and often over-qualified adult candidates is proving sobering.
As a result, many Massachusetts teens simply don’t know what it is like to work. Even when they are lucky enough to find a job directly out of high school, it’s more likely to be a dead-end and low-paying position, which stunts their potential contribution to our economy and communities.
Gerald Chertavian, founder and CEO of Year Up and chair of the Governor’s Task Force on School to College and Career Readiness agrees. He recently commented that, “The failure to integrate college and career readiness in our public schools is an immediate and growing crisis. Young adults become more engaged and motivated when they are exposed to the workplace — and that has a direct impact on higher achievement.”
Support from businesses, teachers and legislators is critical to ensuring that all students in Massachusetts have access to the skills needed to enter the job market or pursue post-secondary education or training.
As Massachusetts state Sen. Michael Rodrigues and state Rep. Patricia Haddad have urged, it is important that we contact our legislators and ask them to expand the state’s commitment to School to Career initiatives … not shrink it beyond repair.
Continued and increased investment by the state Legislature in expanding career building tools and experience for our youth can deliver strong ROI as it is not only an investment in the students’ themselves, but also in the Commonwealth’s future workforce and our collective economic health.
Nancy Huntington Stager is chair of the North Shore Workforce Investment Board and executive vice president of Eastern Bank.