Strada Education Network Blog: Investing Early in the Workforce of the Future

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Investing Early in the Workforce of the Future

By Eshauna Smith
CEO, Urban Alliance

We’re a nation of workers – so we all understand the elation that comes when an employer praises our work. Nayib Kuncar of KITEWIRE, a mobile device software and application developer in Arlington, Va., certainly knows that feeling.

Nayib’s supervisor, KITEWIRE CEO Jere Simpson, said, “Nayib saved us $30,000 in just half of one of his work days by improving a process with automation and technology we were unaware of.”

It’s a compliment any employee would be enthused to hear — but Nayib is not just any employee.

He started working at KITEWIRE as a senior in high school through Urban Alliance. The nonprofit provides paid, professional internships, job skills training, and mentoring to students from under-resourced communities who are at risk of potentially disconnecting from pathways to self-sufficiency after high school. After hearing about the program at his school, Nayib decided to sign up. From there, he took hold of the opportunity with both hands, soaking up all the knowledge he could while adding real value to the company.

Through Urban Alliance, Nayib participated in six weeks of professional skills training, including professional communication (written and oral), teamwork, workplace etiquette, and time management before beginning work. He also took part in ongoing training and post-high school planning throughout the year. On the job, he learned even more skills in a real-world setting, such as problem solving, critical thinking, and learning how to work with different people and personalities.

“The ability to experience the professional world from the inside gives you a new perspective. It becomes a lot less intimidating,” said Nayib. “It made me comfortable to bring up ideas to improve the company.

“Most people my age go into college pursuing a career that has been suggested and even pushed on them by school, their parents, and our culture,” he continued. “They have no idea what the work environment is like or what the day to day is. With UA, I was able to learn and be much more certain about the career path I wanted to take and what type of higher education I want to pursue.”

Promoting workforce readiness

Combining meaningful early work experience, adult support, and professional development, Urban Alliance provides participating students with access to opportunities, training and support they might not otherwise have. The goal is to open the door to future possibilities and set them firmly on a pathway to economic self-sufficiency.

For Nayib, Urban Alliance was a life-changing experience. He was offered a full-time position at KITEWIRE upon completion of his internship and is currently working there while he takes evening classes to earn his undergraduate degree in business administration and finance — a career path heavily influenced by his work experience through Urban Alliance.

Stories like Nayib’s are why we’re pleased Strada Education NetworkSM is investing in social enterprises, like Urban Alliance, that are partnering with employers and schools to address the skills gap and ensure that students are adequately prepared for the working world.

Investing in early work experience and training — catching young people while they’re in high school and instilling in them a strong work ethic, professional behavior, and critical soft skills — is a form of talent pipeline management that has the potential to not only produce better workers, but more economically successful adults.

KITEWIRE sees its investment in Urban Alliance not only as a way to create a pipeline of new talent, but also as a valuable resource for growing their network, injecting fresh ideas into the workplace, and providing mentoring opportunities to staff.

“We like to joke that Urban Alliance is our secret weapon,” Jere said. “The value is beyond measure.”

Addressing the skills gap

The National Association of Colleges and Employers’ (NACE) most recent Job Outlook survey found that the top-ranked skills employers look for when hiring are soft skills, like those that Urban Alliance and similar programs teach.

Yet a 2015 survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that fewer than three in 10 employers believe that recent college graduates are sufficiently prepared in the skills employers deem most important for the workforce. And it’s not just employers who are noticing: The Strada Education Network-Gallup 2017 College Student Survey found that only about a third of college students feel prepared for either the job market (34%) or the workforce (36%).

Real-world job experience matters too. A recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that high school and college students with paid work experience were more likely to earn more later in life. Data show that young job applicants today need applied learning experiences — such as internships or apprenticeships — to succeed.

But beyond the benefits of skills training and early work experience, programs like Urban Alliance are giving young people a new perspective on their own abilities and what could be possible for their future. That exposure to the professional world is eye-opening for the vast majority of our students.

For Nayib, being heard and respected on the job gave him a new level of confidence that he will carry with him throughout his career. It was “very empowering to have someone at such a professional level find value in me, along with my thoughts and ideas,” Nayib said. “It gave me peace of mind going into the world.”

Imagine the confident, skilled workforce we could build together if more employers took KITEWIRE’s example and invested in early work experience and training — for a generation of talented employees like Nayib.