Kansas City’s New Model for Job Skills Training in Education

Kansas City’s New Model for Job Skills Training in Education
Steve Bloom/The Olympian via AP

The nature of work is changing, and our education system isn’t doing a good job of preparing students for the jobs of today. A new model of skills-based education launching in Kansas City is designed to solve this problem.

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Kansas City is a place known for flat land and flat dialects. It’s not the first city that comes to mind when one thinks of cutting-edge innovation. But the Kansas City-based Kauffman Foundation is launching a noteworthy new educational startup called the Skilled KC Technical Institute in early 2020. It’s a project that thoroughly reimagines the pathway from school to employment.

For far too many students, it’s clear that the present pathway isn’t working. Data provided by the National Center for Education Statistics paints a bleak picture. For every 100 students, 17 never graduate from high school. Of the 83 who do earn high school diplomas, 25 never enroll in postsecondary education. That leaves 58 who attend some form of college. 20 of those will enroll in two-year colleges, and 38 in traditional four-year universities. Of the 20 who enroll in two-year colleges, only seven will earn a degree. Of the 38 who enroll in four-year universities, only 24 will graduate. That means only 31 out of the original 100 students will have earned some kind of postsecondary degree.

But the story doesn’t end there. Citing data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Kauffman Foundation reports that of the 24 out of 100 who earn a four-year degree, ten end up underemployed or working jobs below the level of their training. By this measure the system is only working for fourteen out of every 100 students; the rest are left behind. Many end up in a worst-case scenario: carrying large amounts of student debt and with unfinished or underutilized degrees. Minority students are hit especially hard and are disproportionately likely to end up defaulting on student loans.

Meanwhile, the U.S. economy is enjoying an era of historically low unemployment. Millions of jobs that require skills and training remain unfilled. There is a wide gap between the opportunities available in the job market and the product of the education system. In response to this problem, Congress has tied some federal dollars to a requirement that states provide better career and technical education programs.

The goal of Skilled KC is to provide a time-efficient pathway to quality employment with little to no debt. Students in the program will be able to earn a job-ready credential in three to six months. The pilot program will include training programs in Advanced Manufacturing, Information Technology, and Biosciences. Skilled KC Technical Institute will operate under official accreditation of both the Missouri and Kansas Higher Education Departments, despite its non-traditional structure. There will be no degree programs, only job-focused credentials.

Some of our nation’s most sought-after employers, such as Google and Apple, no longer require all employees to have a four-year degree. According to report by the Kauffman Foundation, 84% of white-collar employers say they are open to hiring people with not more than a high school diploma. But these employers are still looking for candidates with skills, training, and practical experience.

A New Model for Earning Employable Credentials

To ensure their training lines up with the needs of the job market, Skilled KC has formed an industry council for each credential program. Area business leaders are helping to shape the curriculum and ensure students get the right training. Some of these industry partnerships will support specific employment opportunities for graduates.

The physical footprint of this training program is non-traditional as well. Miles Sandler, director of Engagement at the Kauffman Foundation, describes it as a “hub and spoke model,” with classrooms spread out at various locations throughout the Kansas City metro area. “We have had several community colleges within our region interested in working with us by hosting the space in which Skilled KC students will learn,” she said. Kauffman is also planning to disperse “mobile classrooms” such as buses or trailers, which will be parked in various parts of the city during three-month training periods.

The willingness of local community colleges to cooperate with Skilled KC – looking at it as a potential partner rather than competition – is notable. Ms. Sandler said Skilled KC hopes to create opportunities for students to further their education at area community colleges if they choose to and to have its credential programs count toward graduation credits at partnering institutions.

A similar effort in area high schools is already up and running. Over 25 Kansas City-area superintendents are part of Kauffman’s Real World Learning initiative, which aims to introduce employable skills to the high school experience. Some area high schools, for example, are using Skilled KC to provide high school students with training in Advanced Manufacturing. The training done at the high school level will count toward an earnable credential.

The curriculum is designed to provide students with a clear pathway for advancement. The credentials are “stackable.” For instance, a student might first earn a credential called “Manufacturing Tech I” in three months’ time, and then land a job. Later, the individual may decide to return to Skilled KC to earn the “Manufacturing Tech II” credential. Similarly, a student in the Biotechnology program could complete the programs “Lab Tech I” program, find a job, and then choose to complete the “Lab Tech II” and “Bioinformatics Specialist” programs, with each credential opening up new job opportunities as well as opportunities for promotion and increased pay. Someone else could follow a similar pathway through Skilled KC’s programs to become a software developer.

Skilled KC has not yet made public the tuition costs for its training programs, but Ms. Sandler said that “multiple mechanisms are being put into place to keep it low to no cost for students.”

The organizers of Skilled KC envision a system where low-skilled individuals can pick up a valuable credential in three to six months and land a job paying a solid middle-class salary. According to data provided by the Kauffman Foundation, Kansas City has more than 200,000 jobs in the skilled trades and more than 20% of those remain unfilled currently.

Only time will tell if Skilled KC will can achieve its hoped-for impact on unemployment, underemployment, and student debt in the region. But it is a model that should be watched closely. If it is successful in Kansas City, it may be reproduced elsewhere.

What About the Value of a Well-Rounded Education?

The mission of Skilled KC isn’t to replace a traditional liberal arts-based education. It’s about creating economic opportunity for millions of working-class Americans who were left behind when the manufacturing economy gave way to the information economy. While there is real economic value to attending a traditional college (so long as you finish the degree), the traditional pipeline is not working for most students, and it shouldn’t be sold to them as the only pathway to prosperity.

We should not allow the romantic vision of the traditional university – beautiful though it is – to obscure the sad reality that our current system has produced: millions of jobless Americans weighed down by student loans for degrees they never finished.

In reality, there are serious questions about how much students actually learn in college. And, furthermore, with free lectures from the greatest universities in the world streaming online, vast resources of information and scholarship only a few keystrokes away, and public libraries abounding, there are plenty of debt-free options if someone simply wants to learn and has the drive to do so. Ultimately, if the goal is to create well-rounded, well-educated individuals, we might start by asking: Why aren’t free, publicly funded high schools doing a better job?

Credentials are about employability, in the end. Many career pathways require a traditional four-year degree. Making those pathways available to bright but disadvantaged students should remain a priority. No young person should be discouraged from pursuing a well-rounded education, and none should be told that a four-year degree is not an option. But students should not be told that it is the only viable option for success.

For most Americans, higher education is something they see, first and foremost, as a pathway to a good job. Skilled KC may be showing us how to remove some of the barriers along that pathway, especially for students who come from low-income communities where options and resources are limited. Let’s hope it succeeds in that mission.

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