A car, much like a career, can look great based on pictures and reviews, but once inside you might feel entirely different about it. For that reason, most people wouldn’t purchase a new car without first taking it for test drive. Yet, high school students often choose a career path, one of the biggest financial and professional decisions of their lives, with little to no real-world, test-driving experience.
But that is changing for high school students across the state.
The Iowa Intermediary Network, a statewide network comprised of 15 community college regions that work with every Iowa school district, is helping high school students test drive careers so they can make informed decisions about future college majors and job training.
“It’s very hard to pick a major or intended career based solely on web searches and secondhand information,” said Jeremy Varner, administrator for the division of community colleges and workforce preparation at the Iowa Department of Education. “Starting down a career path and discovering it is a bad fit after a few years of paying college tuition can be an expensive learning experience.”
Supported by a $1.45 million state grant appropriation to develop and expand work-based learning opportunities across the state, the Iowa Intermediary Network builds relationships within the education system and regional businesses to provide opportunities for students to experience different careers.
“We are the schools’ work-related resource so that teachers don’t have to do it all themselves,” said Terri Hungerford, coordinator for the Iowa Valley intermediary program. “Teachers and counselors are pulled in so many directions. Building relationships, establishing trust, and preparing students for workplace expectations takes a considerable amount of time, and we can take that off of their plates.”
Each of the individual intermediary networks provides core services to school districts in their respective regions, which may include finding guest speakers, holding career and industry fairs, scheduling job shadowing experiences, coordinating student internships and teacher externships, offering teacher licensure renewal opportunities, and taking students and teachers on industry tours. Where appropriate, the attainment of portable credentials of value to employers, such as certificates in welding, certified nursing assistant (CNA) and computer numeric control (CNC), are facilitated.
“One thing our intermediary does is fund and provide opportunities for students to earn certifications that may not be offered through their high school,” said Gena Gesing, director of career services at Northeast Iowa Community College who also oversees the Northeast Iowa Career Learning Link.
“For instance, Dubuque Community Schools offers a certified nursing assistant (CNA) program as part of its career and technical education offerings, but it doesn’t have the capacity to enroll all interested students,” Gesing said. “NICC and Dubuque Community Schools worked together to offer CNA courses over the summer to Career Learning Link students who couldn’t get into the program during the school year. We had 56 high school students earn their CNA this summer at no cost to them.”
Providing opportunities for students to see the connection between classroom content and potential careers is in line with state legislation passed last year to raise the quality of career and technical (CTE) education programs to prepare students to succeed after high school, whether that be in the workforce or in postsecondary education. These opportunities are also integral to the Future Ready Iowa initiative, which calls for 70 percent of Iowans to have education or training beyond high school by 2025.
One of the most impactful and popular work-based learning opportunities is job shadowing, where students get a glimpse into a typical day on the job. It is also one of the most time consuming to administer due to scheduling, preparation, and the confidentiality concerns of some industries, such as health care. But both Hungerford and Gesing agree that at the end of the day, having students experience a typical day in a career is one of the most rewarding.
“I arranged for a student to job shadow a middle school art teacher,” Hungerford said. “She wasn’t sure if she wanted to teach or if she wanted to use her talents in a corporate setting. After her job shadow experience, she realized that she was good at working with kids and really could see herself as an art teacher.”
Sometimes students find the opposite is true.
“College is a really expensive way to find yourself,” Gesing said. “It is better to find out a career isn’t the right fit before you spend thousands of dollars on college tuition.”
Gesing recalls coaching a young woman who was sure she wanted to go to medical school to be a podiatrist.
“She came back from her job shadow with her eyes wide open,” Gesing said. “The experience made her realize she didn’t want to go to school for years for a job she didn’t really like. We went over what she liked and disliked about the job, and did more career exploration and now she is studying to be a nurse practitioner at the University of Iowa.”
In another case, a student job shadowed a pharmacist, something he had wanted to do for as long as he could remember. But he didn’t anticipate the amount of patient interaction the job involved. After the experience, he changed his career focus to finance.
Most of the services provided through the intermediaries focus on high school students. Gesing and Hungerford say the earlier they can talk to students about careers the better, but the state-appropriated grant only goes so far. Expanding services currently requires finding additional funding sources.
For instance, the Northeast Iowa Career Learning Link partnered with various Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) providers in their region to jointly apply for a Youth CareerConnect grant through the U.S. Department of Labor. The grant is designed to encourage school districts, institutions of higher education, the workforce investment system, and their partners to scale up evidence-based high school models that will transform the high school experience for America's youth. The northeast Iowa project was one of 24 programs across the nation to receive an award. The $2.7 million grant has enabled the funding of career coaches in each of the 23 high schools served.
Career coaches help guide students through the high school experience to get them to the next point – either unsubsidized employment or postsecondary education.
“It is someone for the student to sit down with who isn’t a teacher or parent,” Gesing said. “All of our career coaches went through a ‘coaching intensive’ to better prepare them for coaching students. Counselors see the career coaches as an extension of what they do and students get more one-on-one assistance with college and career planning.”
Because of their strong community and industry ties, the regional intermediaries also provide opportunities to expose students to growing, in-demand occupations.
Iowa Valley, for instance, hosted an advanced manufacturing day last year where 118 students had the opportunity to interact with area businesses and learned more about careers in the skilled trades. An introduction to health care event introduced students to the wide range of career opportunities available and allowed them to explore through hands-on activities.
One unique experience gives students in northeast Iowa a first-hand look at what it takes to work in a medical procedure environment.
“One health-care system with clinics throughout northeast Iowa is headquartered in La Crosse, Wisc., where they have an integrated center for education,” Gesing said. “We take students there to experience what it’s like to work in health care. Last year the students got to observe full hip and knee replacement surgeries where they had two-way communication with the doctors and nurses performing the procedures.”
The intermediaries also work closely with schools and area education agencies (AEA) to provide career-focused professional development for teachers and counselors, such as teacher externships, multi-occupational certification (MOC), and teacher license renewal courses.
Iowa Valley recently offered a teacher license renewal course in advanced manufacturing, a field in need of skilled workers. When northeast Iowa learned that a lack of educators with an MOC endorsement was keeping students from earning credit for internships, they worked with their regional planning partnership (RPP) in addition to using some of their federal money to get classes in place. RPPs are important allies as they cover every school district in Iowa and work to ensure students have access to high-quality CTE programming that aligns career guidance, CTE and academic curricula, and work-based learning opportunities.
“An MOC endorsement enables teachers to give credit for a student internship experience,” Gesing said. “By offering the program and covering the cost, we enabled 16 educators to become certified, including one of our career coaches who is also a licensed teacher. Eight teachers in special education also earned work experience coordinator (WEC) endorsements to provide vocational and transition programming for individuals with disabilities.”
Being part of a statewide network means that the regional intermediaries can share ideas and try new things that have worked in other parts of the state.
“The best thing is that we all have different ideas and because we have amazing relationships, we are willing to share,” Hungerford said. “If I need to find an opportunity for a student that we don’t offer in our area, I can call another intermediary and see if I can send a student to something that they have. We are fine with crossing borders.”
These relationships with other intermediaries came in handy when Hungerford had a student who wanted to job shadow at a chiropractic clinic. Hungerford was able to reach out to a neighboring intermediary and facilitate the experience for the student to job shadow in another town where there was a larger clinic.
Looking forward, Hungerford and Gesing hope to expand services to middle and elementary schools and to offer student mentoring with a focus on soft skills development – such as the ability to work as part of a team– that employers often say is lacking. Eventually, they hope to have the resources for every high school junior to go on at least one job shadowing experience.
“Students have told me that without the help of the career coaches and the opportunities to experience careers first hand, their college and career decisions would have been a lot different,” Gesing said. “They said they most likely would have made other choices, and they probably wouldn’t have been the right choices.”
The ultimate goal of the intermediaries is to ensure every student is future-ready when they leave high school.
“A student who is future-ready sees the connection between coursework and careers,” Gesing said. “That connection makes higher education relevant. Students leave with a clear pathway to obtain the training, certification, or degree needed to be successful in a career that they will enjoy right here in Iowa.”
Best Practices for Regional Intermediaries
The biggest part of the job involves building and nurturing relationships and really learning and understanding the high schools being served.
“It takes time to learn and understand the needs of the high schools,” Hungerford said. “You have to build trust with educators, administrators, area education agencies, regional planning partnerships, business and industry, as well as students.”
Keep Counselors Informed
Invite counselors to all of the programs provided so they can be informed and get involved.
“I always tell counselors, ‘if you need me I am here,’” Hungerford said. “If they have a good program established, I don’t try to take that over. I fill in the gaps.”
Assist with Funding Gaps
Federal Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education funding, which supports CTE programming, doesn’t allow the use of funds for transportation or meals.
“We work with a lot of first generation students and students who don’t have support at home,” Gesing said. “We can help with transportation or food costs so that no student is excluded from participating in day-long career experiences.”
Know Your Regional Planning Partnership (RPP)
Legislation passed last year to redesign CTE in Iowa involves regional planning partnerships comprised of school district leaders and educators, area education agency administrators, community college presidents, economic development and workforce organizations, and business and industry that support school districts in the development of best approaches for delivering high-quality CTE and concurrent enrollment.
“Being involved with your regional planning partnership is critical,” Gesing said. “There are opportunities to work together to ensure all students have access to valuable work-based learning opportunities.”
Establish Checks and Balances for Job Shadowing
Setting up job shadowing experiences are some of the most time consuming to do. Having a process and being clear about expectations for students and employers should be established.
“Health care is especially difficult,” Hungerford said. “Understanding the concerns of health-care providers is necessary. To do a job shadow in this area students have to meet with me to go over HIPAA (health information privacy) and to watch a video provided to us by one of our health-care providers. We talk candidly about expectations and serve as the liaison between the job provider, counselor and student.”
Watch for Funding Opportunities
Funding from state appropriated grants can only be stretched so far. Watch for other local and regional funding streams, such as United Way grants, as well as opportunities to partner with other groups to help offset costs.
“We don’t charge schools for any of our services,” Gesing said. “So we have to be creative in how to accomplish everything we want to do with the resources available.”