Kansas City, eh? I’ve never heard of anything coming out of Kansas.”
Unless they were from the Midwest, most of the people I met during the SXSW EDU Conference were surprised to learn that Kansas City was anything more than a “cattle town.” And despite the triumphs of our city, I too came into the conference assuming I would be learning from “bigger and better” cities and the ecosystems they have created for their youth.
This was, in part, due to the way panels at the conference were advertised; most of the titles included exciting phrases, such as “Empowering Student Voices” and “Innovating College to Career.” These panels were comprised of community leaders; executive directors and presidents of universities, educators, consultants, and experts on diversity and equity. And while they brought with them knowledge and experience − things I am eager to soak up like a sponge − not one offered a remedy for effectively changing the landscape for youth. Rather, it quickly became clear that, regardless of differences in size and systems, cities across the country are all facing similar challenges in career and college readiness.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that institutions aren’t trying. Several of the sessions included colleges and universities that are working to build bridges between themselves, high schools, and employers. The institutions that believe college readiness is most important rely heavily on STEM, and those that believe career readiness is most important rely heavily on internships and apprenticeships.
Therein lies the problem: institutions are often choosing an “either/or” rather than a “both/and” solution. Instead of trying to place some students into the STEM pipeline and other students into the workforce pipeline, they are pushing all of them into one place, creating a bottleneck that ensures failure for at least a portion of their students.
Why are institutions choosing one pathway over the other? In cases like that of Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas, schools are expected to be the source of both workforce and STEM access for their students. According to Colette Pierce Burnette, President and CEO of HTU, if employers do not feel pressure from their City to build a workforce with schools, the responsibility falls on entities like HTU to build the workforce pipeline themselves. This not only creates challenges in accessibility and visibility for students, but it also puts additional pressure on the school to be the sole provider of pathways to their students.
If schools are carrying the load of STEM and workforce development, which should be their priority? Michael Sorrell, President of Paul Quinn College, argues that STEM should be the main focus for schools because it leads to the largest pool of skills and jobs. But what about the students who do not excel at STEM? According to Michelle Weise, Strada Institute for the Future of Work, 40% of students with a liberal arts degree do not expect to get a career in the field they are studying, and 38% of young people (in any field) do not find a career path after graduation. If this is the case, how can we better support those students who do not enter into a STEM pipeline?
Versions of these questions came up in almost every panel I attended at SXSW EDU. And despite the skepticism larger cities have of Kansas City, I think we might be able to ameliorate some of the issues. Kansas City has the capacity to generate a robust workforce while maintaining STEM pipelines and strengthening the education system. Unlike other cities, we have the political will and the capacity. From the top-down, our city believes in the empowerment of our young people. We already have a cache of organizations that are creating pathways into workforce and STEM that are not mutually exclusive.
So, what do we need? In order for Kansas City to provide solutions that so many other cities are missing, we need to continue to support each other’s initiatives with the end goal being prosperous pathways into both college and career readiness for our young people. This means that workforce development, education, and STEM organizations must work together and overlap to fill the gaps. This also means that a common data engine is necessary to scale our success and ensure we are meeting the needs of our city’s “futures”. Without a common data engine, we are unable to identify the needs and map where they live in the ecosystem.
I believe Kansas City can be a catalyst for change in the education and workforce world. Perhaps this “cattle town” can offer insights and best practices to other cities at the next SXSW EDU Conference.