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PUBLICATION: Forbes Insights - Innovation and Collaboration in Job Training

An excerpt from the Forbes Insights report: Digitizing Human Services

For-profit and NFP providers are working with schools, colleges and universities to infuse technology and revolutionize job-training and workforce development. The Idaho Pathways in Technology Early College High School (PTECH) model melds the interests and capabilities of public schools, private businesses, universities, community colleges and students. Essentially, PTECH serves as a facilitator of crucial conversations among employers, education departments and students. Learning what employers need, PTECH helps all parties figure out the best uses of technology and processes to help students become workforce-ready.

According to Executive Director Alan Millar, the PTECH model had its beginnings in 2010 when IBM approached the City of Brooklyn with an innovative approach to jobs training. The idea, says Millar, “was to make education more relevant to the students, giving them a path to college credits and skills IBM needed,” becoming a win for all parties concerned. The program in Brooklyn and elsewhere has been so successful, says Millar, “that we decided to bring it to Idaho, but tailor it to fit our unique needs.”

But “if you haven’t noticed,” says Millar, “there are some geographic differences between Idaho and Brooklyn.” For one, while Brooklyn is densely populated, Idaho is decidedly rural. Consequently, not only are students widely dispersed, but schools are smaller, “meaning less concentration in teachers/professors” in the technical areas desired by employers. Such issues, says Millar, “make technology even more important.”

Another difference: while Brooklyn has $92 billion IBM as a sponsor, Idaho has no single employer of such scale. As a result, says Millar, “we had to build a consortium of partners from technology, aerospace and healthcare.” Another key contributor to the program is the J.A. and Kathyrn Albertson’s Foundation, an organization committed to the education of Idahoans.

In addition, all PTECH programs face similar challenges in terms of garnering the support and cooperation not only of the public school system but also that of universities and community colleges. “This requires a great deal of flexibility for all concerned,” says Millar. For example, “colleges tend to resist the idea of breaking tech courses down into bite-sized pieces,” says Millar. Meanwhile, for public school teachers and administrators, “this has a significant impact on scheduling and other areas.” Overall, says Millar, “it’s easy to  sell the concept—but it’s a lot harder to make it work.”

Enablement begins with the provision of hardened, dedicated-to-the-program-only laptops for all of the students.

In spite of such challenges, Idaho PTECH saw its first four participants graduate high school in June 2015, with many more behind. These initial students, still part of the PTECH program as they progress, “already have college credits in areas that are relevant to employers in the state.” As a result, says Millar, “we believe [this] will lead to better performance and earlier success across the span of their careers. We’re kickstarting their lives.”

Execution, however, requires a significant degree of technology. Because of the distributed nature of the program, classes are 100% “online,” says Millar. Enablement begins with the provision of hardened, dedicated-to-the-program-only laptops for all of the students. Millar says his group gets it done “for just $460 per student” in two ways. First, these are no-nonsense “basic machines” that are purpose-built to meet the needs of the program and nothing more. “These are not the students’ personal laptops—these are for school only,” says Millar.

Second, the machines are centrally monitored and maintained. “So wherever they log on, what students see is filtered.” Plus, “our help desk can take over the laptops remotely, to provide maintenance, software updates or whatever is needed.” This not only makes for a more convenient and relatively worry-free student experience, the technology “is remarkably efficient, safe and cost effective,” says Millar.

One of the biggest surprises so far: life coaching is more important than technical training. As Millar explains, “What employers really want are life skills: persistence, communication, collaboration. Workers with these attributes can learn what they need on the job.” As a result, Millar is working to enhance the “softer” side of the program, enabled in large part by the assignment of a life coach.

Life coaching begins with technology. Students each have a coach that they meet with regularly—virtually—through tools such as video chat and text. But it continues with real-life programs such as a summer camp for aerospace and leadership training. “To the extent we can give these kids actual life experience,” says Millar, “we can improve their motivation and employability.”

Idaho PTECH began with eight schools and 90 students in the fall of 2014 and is adding another eight schools and 100 students this fall. To date, PTECH students have earned 415 college credits, successfully completing 94% of college credits attempted. Many are already finding job shadow and internship placements through the more than 20 Idaho industry partners. As the program moves through the development and testing stage, the focus remains on building a model that consistently and flexibly addresses student and employer needs.

Read the full Forbes Insights report here.