Bruce Maiman

Businesses can help chart a smarter path to college, careers

Bruce Maiman
Bruce Maiman

Employers need to get involved with Linked Learning. They’ll be not only helping students, but helping themselves.

Sometimes called Career Pathways, Linked Learning is a relatively new educational program, funded by the state and through grants, that integrates rigorous academic and career tech learning with employers who provide students with real-world, paid-workplace experiences. That makes high school graduates both eligible for college and more hirable.

Sounds great for students; what’s in it for employers? Plenty, many industry and business partners told me.

It starts with hiring anxiety. “Whenever you’re hiring someone, you’re taking a leap of faith,” said Gary King, chief workforce officer at the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. “You know about a candidate through their résumé or an interview, but there’s still a lot you won’t know until they actually start working on the job. With Career Pathways, we now have students we’ve worked with for extended periods. We know their character, their attitude, how knowledgeable they are. We’re more confident in our decision to bring that person into our organization on a long-term basis.”

Last summer, Sutter Health hired more than 50 high school students for paid internships at hospitals in Sacramento, Roseville and Auburn, where they worked in everything from patient registration to stem cell research. “One student so impressed hospital workers she’s actually stayed on to volunteer while she finishes school,” Sutter’s Anette Smith-Doring said. “She graduates in June. If a position opens up, they’ll hire her in a minute if she’s willing to take it.”

Connecting these students with employers are nonprofit groups such as the Linked Learning Alliance and the Foundation for California Community Colleges. “It’s Match.com for internships,” says foundation Director Tim Aldinger. “A business would create a profile for the employee needed. Students would do the same about who they are. We match the two for the best fit.”

The foundation also serves as the employer of record, sparing businesses from paperwork and saving them employment expenses. “We take all that on – payroll, workers’ comp, even liability,” Aldinger said.

Since roughly 90 percent of California’s businesses are small, that’s a financial lifesaver, allowing any employer of any size to become involved in the program.

“We’re 10 employees,” said Todd Lindstrom, co-principal of Auburn-based Enable Energy, a renewable startup. “We found recruiting interns a costly endeavor, but through Pathways, we can take interns in high school or college and put them in a productive position. They work for us just like any other person we would hire. It’s turned out real well for us.”

Business leaders often express concerns about the quality of new graduates. They say there’s a skills gap. They can help change that by putting students in paid jobs. Employers not only provide the venue, they can spot those skills gaps and help educators shape curriculum to address them.

In Elk Grove, for instance, the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, Kaiser Permanente and the California Health Profession Consortium designed the program at Valley High’s Health Tech Academy so that when students graduate, they’re automatically certified as community health workers and can go right to work if they choose.

“We do feel we’re seeding the workforce with really well-trained engineers and technologists,” said Bill Kelly of SunPower Corp., the Richmond-based solar company. “We’re relying on these kids for our future workforce.”

That consideration takes on greater significance when you consider how many of today’s workers are nearing retirement age.

One pleasant surprise I heard repeatedly was how rewarding these business partnerships are for employees who work with the students. “A lot of them were a little hesitant going into this,” PG&E spokesperson Geneve Villacres told me, “but in no time, I had employees calling to ask if they could take them to this job or that, or sit ’em in the bucket. They really appreciated the opportunity to show someone their trade.”

Businesses that signed up early have paved the way for others to get involved. Some 40 in the Sacramento area have committed to provide opportunities for 200 students through next summer. The full promise of Linked Learning won’t be reached, however, unless more companies provide internships and apprenticeships.

“It’s not going to work unless employers come to the table and invest in meaningful ways,” said Tim Rainey, executive director of the California Workforce Investment Board.

Bruce Maiman is a former radio host who lives in Rocklin. Contact him at brucemaiman@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @Maimzini.

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