As vice president of education programs at the Committee for Economic Development of The Conference Board, Cindy Cisneros helps shape education policy from early learning to post-high school workforce development.
When she thinks What the Future, she pictures communities preparing children earlier, bringing more stakeholders to the table and planning additional education options for after high school.
Kate MacArthur: What’s the most important thing to focus on in preparing our future workforce?
Cindy Cisneros: Readiness is a really important element. That was further highlighted as a result of the pandemic in terms of asking ourselves, “What is quality education, what does it mean to deliver education for students, how are our students actually learning and what is the best way to promote that type of learning?” We need to understand that those conversations happen primarily at the local level, especially in education, which is a decentralized system in the U.S. The business community is an important voice and has an important perspective to help impact that conversation. They really are the ultimate consumer of the education system.
MacArthur: How should employers be involved?
Cisneros: Getting employer’s perspective and understanding on what they’re thinking about as it relates to workplace readiness and tapping their knowledge and expertise can help influence the thinking on problem-solving such as through public-private partnerships with education institutions.
MacArthur: What’s been the biggest shift or dynamic in the way that we think about workplace readiness for high school students?
Cisneros: You actually have to start at the beginning. The timeframe of birth to 5 is an exceptionally robust period of brain development for children. It’s during those earliest years when the foundation is laid for all future learning, including those executive function skills that employers value so greatly. Those types of skills—employability skills, soft skills—those really reflect critical thinking, problem-solving, teamwork, communications. Those are the kinds of skills highly valued by employers, more so than even content knowledge and training.
MacArthur: Are there any good existing examples?
Cisneros: There’s a very innovative and excellent program in Cajon Valley Union School District outside of San Diego, called the World of Work. It is designed to introduce students from kindergarten through high school to the possibilities of different fields of work. It helps them explore their own interests and things that they like to do and presents opportunities for learning about various career pathways. Part of the program includes linking students directly with individuals from the business community and other sectors in specific fields. It’s not just about the content skills of reading, writing, math, science, history, and civics, but a program that supports thinking about their evolution as a citizen and what path that they will choose for vocational pursuit.
MacArthur: How has the pandemic shaped how students think about future careers?
Cisneros: The pandemic has highlighted the need for jobs that have a strong application of technology: computational sciences and cybersecurity, with privacy and security becoming increased issues of concern. It’s definitely helped highlight and focus on a certain set of jobs that are very STEM-based and that will influence the offerings in schools and colleges for the future.
MacArthur: There’s also a dual dynamic happening where a lot of kids are rejecting higher education. How do you address that for the future?
Cisneros: We know that business leaders believe students are not graduating ready to step into the workplace. Over 60% of new jobs require some form of post-secondary training. It may not be college, but it will require some other type of educational training. There’s a proliferation of bootcamps for software coding and different variations on that alternative certification approach and theme. There’s a recognition that we can get students focused and working more directly on particular subject areas, and skill them in shorter amounts of time. The community colleges in particular have been responsive to this growing need in the field and can more easily adapt to provide these types of opportunities and programs.
MacArthur: Are there any model programs that stand out?
Cisneros: One is the P-TECH model, which was established for students in nine different states who receive a combination of hands-on academic education, as well as technical and workplace experiences. The P-TECH system integrates high school and college coursework and students participate in workplace opportunities like internships. One report on New York City’s P-TECH high schools studied a sample of students, mostly African-American and Hispanic, and found that they had experienced increased career exposure and were more likely to earn credits in work-based learning than students at non P-TECH high schools in New York City.
MacArthur: What will it take to get companies to make the investment?
Cisneros: There’s far more recognition, especially coming off of the pandemic year, that the problems can be so unwieldy and so big that you need all key stakeholders, including the business sector, to be at the table along with the local innovation, the local creativity, and the local flexibility that help create those choices and solve the issues in each community. It is in their collective interests to do so in order to achieve economic prosperity for all.