When students grow up in under-resourced communities, they may lack the access and resources they need to succeed after high school — and that impacts students’ ability to earn a sustainable wage or achieve economic mobility and financial growth, ultimately affecting our entire economy.
L.A.’s under-invested-in students fall behind academically, and are left unsupported in a stratified labor market without the skills to secure high-quality work. The damage ripples outward, making talent pools smaller and more homogenous, and risks $162 billion in lost revenue for the U.S. by 2030. A staggering 87 percent of companies worldwide report that they already have, or are anticipating, a skills gap. This is a monumental problem that the education system cannot solve alone.
When communities and their education systems are under-resourced, it can mean that students leave high school and enter the workforce at a disadvantage. Higher education, long considered a tool for upward mobility, is moving even further out of reach, with skyrocketing tuition costs creating another barrier to access, not to mention the financial burden of student loan payments. Those costs, along with the recent dismantling of affirmative action in college admissions, leave many students looking for other options.
Workforce development programs already have federal and state support — a promising foundation for addressing these challenges. Though, research shows that Black and Latino workers are underrepresented in industries like engineering, tech, finance and health sciences, particularly in leadership roles.
But another approach can even better prepare students to navigate their professional journeys after high school: Outcomes-driven work-based learning, or ODWBLfor short. In this collaborative approach, students can learn workplace skills, build social capital, and gain necessary skills and exposure to many career pathways.They focus on goal setting and aspirations, transferable work skills, experiential or hands-on learning and build meaningful professional relationships, leaving them more confident and better prepared to navigate their professional journeys after high school.
When school districts and employers work together to bring real-world opportunities to students from under-invested-in communities, the results can be transformative. Over our 40+ year history, we at NAF have witnessed the power of partnerships time and time again. We’ve helped to forge connections between school districts and local businesses and acted as a catalyst to create curriculum and experiences that enable students to identify future jobs within their communities, map a plan for success by mastering skills needed to reach those careers, and develop their networks with professionals.
RTX, the world’s largest aerospace and defense company, with a campus in El Segundo, is one of the businesses that illustrates the impact of this approach. The company needs high-tech professionals to accomplish its mission, and its investments in the students of greater Los Angeles help to create strong career pathways within the local community while increasing its access to diverse, skilled talent.
This September, NAF, supported by RTX, opened three new Academies of Engineering in Compton at Centennial High School, Dominguez High School and Compton High School. Over 200 students enrolled for the 2023-2024 school year with access to career-focused curricula in general engineering, computer science and aerospace. These students will also have opportunities for hands-on learning and paid internships alongside senior professional mentors at nationally recognized tech/STEM companies. Through these programs, students receive reassurance that their skills are in line with what employers are seeking. This delivers real-world experience that aligns with the future of the engineering industry as whole — for careers in Los Angeles and across the country.
In terms of community impact, our academy design exemplifies how these hands-on learning experiences can bring meaningful investment for students from under-invested-in communities, including those that are low-income, Black and/or Latino. Companies have made it their missions to invest time and effort in supporting students from the communities in which NAF supports.
Outcomes-driven work-based learning succeeds when public and private spheres work in tandem. With such partnerships, more students can enter the workforce with the skills tomorrow’s companies need to thrive in a rapidly changing world. School districts and employers must look to innovative, collaborative models that support local communities and local economies, and that help under-invested-in students make decisions about their long-term education and career goals and guide them in their academic pursuits. Inequities will diminish, and our communities will thrive.
Lisa Dughi is CEO of NAF (naf.org).