Aiken schools, community, collaborating on producing job-ready graduates

SPECIAL Aiken County Public Schools Superintendent Sean Alford speaks at an Aiken Works meeting.

In my most recent column dedicated to outlining the role of public education in community workforce development, I included a statement some may find to be shocking: Within the next five years, we anticipate that our community will lose half its current workforce to retirement, while gaining over 37,000 new job opportunities.

 

Those jobs will require a future-ready workforce, one we will need to provide.

We already recognize this as the heightened community and statewide challenge that it is, and have identified it as a focal point for allocation of time, resources and partnership opportunities. We have joined with vital community partners in a workforce development collaborative called AIKEN WORKS that will serve as an important source of information and a conduit for opportunities to address workforce development challenges.

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Moving ahead in my “Future-Ready” column series, I will address the topic of providing solution-driven graduates to meet the economic and social needs of our community.

As a manner of introduction, I would like to pose the following question: As a school district and provider of the future local, state and global workforce, with whom will we meet the workforce challenges now facing the Aiken County community?

The most obvious answer is, of course, with our students. However, that merely scratches the surface of what must become a more deliberate conversation in our schools, our workplaces and our homes.

In order to reach our goals, both as a community and as a school district, our fundamental understanding of the type of graduates we should be developing in our classrooms and providing to our community as new workforce professionals must change.

In the past, as educators and parents we have too often set as a sole benchmark of success for our students the attainment of a high school diploma. While this is certainly a worthwhile endeavor and an important goal for students, the setting of a single product in place as an “end all” achievement sells our community far short of its economic and social potential.

This product-driven approach to workforce development does nothing to address emerging community workforce needs in a changing global economy, and instead places more of the responsibility of preparing students for the workforce at the doorstep of business and industry professionals, slowing growth and limiting efficiency and profitability for job creators.

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This approach also closes the door on the social potential of the community by limiting the number of graduates who are able to contribute immediately through an important role as a positive and productive citizen. When more of our young people work in a setting they have been uniquely prepared for and experience financial and social success as viable members of our Aiken County community, we can expect a drop in crime rates and an influx of new business and industry investment.

In this manner, we are changing the status quo by proactively engaging community business partners and industry stakeholders where they are, allowing us to provide employers with the workers they will need to move our community forward. That is exactly what the AIKEN WORKS initiative is all about – generating those important community conversations in a deliberate and meaningful way that will allow us to find the most effective answers to our community workforce challenges.

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If we recognize that the answer to our community’s workforce needs no longer resides with the product-driven graduate of years gone by, what is the alternative?

The answer to that question rests in the development of solution-driven, and not product-driven, graduates.

Product-driven success equals a high school diploma, where the story ends. Solution-driven success, on the other hand, equals graduates who represent the economic and social needs of the community. The product-driven graduate enters the workforce at a disadvantage. He or she may lack the skills necessary to make an immediate contribution in an industry in which high-paying jobs are most readily available.

Meanwhile, the solution-driven graduate does not enter an increasingly diversified workforce equipped only with a one-size-fits-all diploma, but rather with a unique set of skills and a base of knowledge with which they are ready to make a difference in an increasingly global society.

Developing a solution-driven workforce in our Aiken County Public Schools means more high-quality job options for our graduates and better access to highly qualified employees for established businesses and those job creators who may be considering Aiken County for possible expansion.

Utilizing this new approach to addressing our community workforce development needs, we have identified four key areas in which we must provide greater numbers of solution-driven graduates who are future-ready immediately upon graduation – including jobs related to the energy, health, industrial manufacturing and cyber technology sectors of our local economy.

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In the immediate future, these are the critical sectors of the economy where we must match our high-quality Aiken County graduates with the expanding job opportunities that will be available to them in increasingly larger numbers with each passing year.

In order to maximize our effectiveness, we must engage not only our students, but also parents, community members and district educators with updated and reliable information regarding jobs in these fields.

This is also another important aspect of our collaborative AIKEN WORKS initiative.

Moving to a model whereby we provide future-ready and solution-driven graduates who meet both the economic and social needs of our community is a win on so many levels for all of us. We look forward to expanding the future-ready discussion in your area of the community very soon.

For more information on our collaborative AIKEN WORKS initiative, and how you can join the solution-driven movement in Aiken County, please visit online at www.aikenworks.org.

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The writer is superintendent of Aiken County schools.

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