Bridging the Gap

Photo by John Picken

While unemployment rates are at about 8.1%, we are finding that the problem is not always that the jobs aren’t there—it’s that our workforce doesn’t have the skills needed to fill available positions. This has caused much public discussion, but the problem persists. Some initiatives, however, are tackling this issue in an effective and meaningful way. It seems that the windy city is at the forefront of this effort, serving as a model for how to approach closing the gap through STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) initiatives in higher education.

CEOs for Cities spoke with the key players behind two very important programs: the College to Careers (C2C) program spearheaded by Chicago City Colleges, and the more recent Minority Male STEM initiative, a partnership between Chicago City Colleges and the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC).

Mapping an Viable Strategy

College to Careers aims to provide students with real-world experiences that can serve as the basis for future job opportunity. Chancellor Cheryl Hyman of City Colleges explained to us that the program works to recognize growing industries—both regionally and globally—to understand where future needs will be. Using that information, City Colleges works with a large spread of industry partners to understand how curricula can be shaped to provide relevant skills to tomorrow’s workforce. An important element of the program is what Hyman refers to as “stackable credentials,” a concept based on the fact that not every student is beginning their education right out of high school. In fact, 32% of City Colleges’ student body is made up of adults who have been out of school for several years, increasing the importance of addressing students at all points in their careers.

“There are various exit and entry points in which students can come in and get trained,” Hyman explains. “Many of our students come to us needing to work right away. We want to provide that opportunity where it exists, but we also want to encourage them to keep learning and to come back to build on that career. We make sure no credential within our program portfolio is a dead end.” This is not just a benefit for students, either. The fact is, employers don’t need a skilled workforce four years from now, they need one yesterday. A structure that encouraged continued learning is beneficial to students, employees and employers alike.

Addressing the current and future realities of our economic situation is important for those wanting to move into the workforce, as well as the developing needs of employers. The collaborative Minority Men STEM Initiative highlights the growing need for skills rooted in mathematics and the sciences. The initiative gives 20-25 African-American, Latino, or Southeast Asian students the opportunity to receive academic support, paid research experience, and access to a learning environment or “culture of science” that will pave the way for academic success, future job opportunities, and (hopefully) a path to graduate school. The participants in the program would complete an associate’s degree at City Colleges, then move on to UIC to finish a Bachelor’s degree in the same field. The program encompasses a myriad of different services, but Hyman emphasizes that research shows students having already completed and associate’s program have a higher probability of success in earning a four-year degree. 

Providing Practicality

Cecil Curtwright, who worked with Dr. William Walden to develop the Minority STEM program, emphasizes the vast amount of funding available to students who pursue science at the graduate and undergraduate level. “There are grants [and] fellowships available for continuing the pursuit of science.” Helping students understand how they can get the most out of their education at the least expense is critical. In order to create a qualified workforce, we must prioritize affordable training and education.  Chancellor Hyman also mentions the financial advantage of completing the first two years of college at City Colleges, where the cost of education is significantly lower.

Beyond the financial practicality, the Minority STEM initiative is cutting-edge in that it provides students with valuable (paid!) research experience. Curtwright explains that students will have the opportunity to be a part of a 10-week summer research program following their last semester at City Colleges, as well as the summer between their junior and senior years. This hands-on experience enriches academic programs and connects students with potential employers. 

Recognizing the developing needs of the consumer market is also extremely important. Chancellor Paula Allen-Meres of UIC highlights not only the growing importance of STEM, but also the increasing importance of diversity in one of the fastest-growing sectors of the U.S. economy: “I’m a member of the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences, and as we look at workforce needs going forward, we know that the healthcare arena is going to need an abundance of ethnic and minority racial providers to meet the changing demographics of our country. So this initiative, in my way of thinking, has this wonderful ripple effect across the STEM disciplines, as well as the healthcare disciplines needed for the future.”

Ensuring a Holistic Approach

For any program to be truly successful, it is critical that all stakeholders are committed to its vision. The partnership between the City Colleges and UIC shows how the roots of collaboration can sprout big ideas—but they didn’t do it all on their own. Anthony Monroe, the president of Malcom X College (representing the health sciences in City Colleges’ network), explained the importance of industry partners in the Colleges to Careers program in providing insight into the skills students should have coming out of the program: “We know that in the Chicagoland area, at least 15,000 nursing jobs are projected to become available over the next 10 years. So we’re busy in terms of preparing our students for that, in fact…we totally revamped the first year nursing curriculum… focusing on what’s needed for the nurse of tomorrow.”

Including governmental bodies and residents on board is just as important as academia and industry. Chancellor Hyman addresses this by explaining that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel launched the College to Careers program last December, and continues to lend his support for the program and its efforts to close the gap.

“When we go down and look at our local, state, federal governments, they are hugely concerned with the skills gap,” says Chancellor Hyman.  She highlights that the 9% of the Chicago workforce that is currently unemployed could be filing the 100,000 open jobs.  Therefore, officials are , “extremely supportive, and very excited about the fact that we are going to have a real focus on ensuring that when their constituencies leave our institutions, they can hit the ground running day one, whether that’s going right into a career or whether that’s transferring on to a four-year institution.” She also mentions that the taxpayers of Chicago are equally supportive: “Now that they see that we have a real strategy, aimed at seeing that our students succeed, they can feel very comfortable about getting a good return on their investment.”

Both the Colleges to Careers program and the Minority Male STEM Initiative stand as examples of the capacity that can be generated through collaborative efforts and a pragmatic look at the inadequate labor force of today. Sitting idly certainly wont cure the very real, very fundamental problems of our economy. So until we start laying bricks, we’ll never build the bridge—and it’s a long jump.

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