Strong, collaborative relationships with community employers are essential for career and technical education (CTE) programs and positive student outcomes. There’s no question that knowing how to engage industry partners in school district CTE programs benefits every
Engaging industry partners in CTE programs is a three-way win
Access to real-world professional networks, the ability to explore careers and determine their fit, and the opportunity to develop all-important "soft skills" all contribute to better outcomes and prepare students for the workforce.
Employers who invest in district CTE gain connections to needed talent and driven, enthusiastic learners who actively develop skills in sectors that require skilled labor. Contributing to CTE by way of professional development, field trips, work-based education, and mentorships help shape curriculum in the short- and long-term, actively preparing the next generation of workers to meet industry leaders' employability standards.
Districts, in turn, access practical and contextualized instructional support and experiential learning opportunities that help students prepare for certification assessments and ultimately secure needed resources with Perkins V and ESSA funding eligibility.
It's clear: having strategies and best practices for engaging industry partners is the very definition of a win-win-win for everyone involved. Developing both is a growing priority for school districts across the country.
Strategies for engaging industry partners in district CTE
Seeking out and fostering relationships with business and industry leaders in the community is a tall order for any school district. When time and other resources are in short supply, securing buy-in from community partners to innovate CTE for students becomes particularly challenging.
We spoke to Dr. Eduardo 'Lalo' Sesatty, PhD. — San Antonio Independent School District's Director of Postsecondary Initiatives — about what it takes to map out a path that connects learning to livelihood by way of local community partner engagement in CTE programs.
1. Focus on the outcome to find your 'north star'
"Focusing on outcomes should be the first strategy a district uses. This is crucial," says Dr. Sesatty. He explains that beginning the journey with the desired destination in mind is one way that district and industry leaders can make sure they are on the same wavelength because this outcome-oriented focus is "how industry [leaders] think."
He recommends that districts get specific about what the goal of each partnership will be before reaching out to community employers.
“Do you want to increase industry-based certifications? Ensure all CTE students have an internship? [Determine] what it is that the partnership will produce, rather than simply adding more industry-based pathways.”
Outcomes to point your compass toward:
Increase industry-based certifications
Ensure every student has access to an internship
Establish educator externship opportunities
Industry equipment and technology skills training
2. Follow paths forged by successful CTE programs in your community
From there, Dr. Sesatty recommends districts get in touch with other local entities that already have the best practices in place to support industry partner engagement. "Start with the local community college," he advises, "They have started down this path through existing certificate and Associate's offerings that require industry collaboration."
Determining the "north star" you use to guide your engagement efforts, combined with reaching out to postsecondary CTE stakeholders within the community, are two strategies that "Will help you enlarge or narrow your focus on engaging with industry partners intentionally." That way, Dr. Sesatty explains, you're not just engaging for engagement's sake.
Following the forged path helps K-12 districts build on successful existing frameworks by helping supply:
A network of industry leaders and an understanding of their goals and interest
An established outreach strategy that respects the time of every stakeholder
A continuum that supports your students' transitions to postsecondary CTE-focused education and employment
3. Engage CTE industry partners with intention
Industry and business leaders are finite resources with finite resources of their own — including the time they can invest in CTE participation. That's why making the business case for their participation must demonstrate how these partnerships will achieve mutually beneficial outcomes.
When you're ready to reach out and invite employers in, the work you've already done to establish your goals and align your strategy with those in the postsecondary CTE community will make it much easier to do just that.
Industry partners want to know the details of what they'll do and why, just as they would for any of their internal initiatives:
What is the desired outcome of the partnership?
What resources are required to reach that outcome?
How much time will they need to commit?
How will success be measured?
4. Chart a successful roadmap for employer engagement through collaboration
You've already answered these questions in steps one and two. At this point in the engagement process, Dr. Sesatty recommends that you look to your north star again and bring your industry partner into the conversation:
"Agree on the outcomes of the partnership. [A] north star that you both agree to abide by [ensures] initiatives, activities, and resources are allocated in a way that serves [your] shared purpose."
As an example: Dr. Sesatty points to the Pathways in Technology Early College High Schools (P-TECH) within San Antonio ISD, of which there are five:
"In Texas, P-TECH programs, a new early college high school model, allow high school students to earn a certificate or Associate's Degree in high school that allows them to continue onto the next level of education in college."
Asking an industry partner to participate in a program like P-TECH connects them directly to skills in an employer's sector and has a clear roadmap for success. The documentation of goals, expectations, and outcomes are built into this model, and you should build them into your engagement model, too.
Commit to intentional engagement by:
Creating internal standards and policies before approaching community partners
Establishing a library of resources like editable internship and mentorship agreements and fact sheets for employers
Provide access to district CTE information and contacts for industry partners to capture incoming interest and supply information
5. Stay the course with ongoing communication
Building industry partner relationships for longevity requires trust and communication, just as all relationships do. Checking in frequently with educators, employers, and students will help you track the progress of your engagement initiatives and correct course when necessary.
Facilitating progress reporting and student evaluation opportunities, along with soliciting formal and informal feedback can prevent wasted effort and time for each stakeholder.
Starting from scratch or exploring ways to innovate existing CTE programming takes time and a network of support. Policymaking bodies, school district and business leaders, postsecondary stakeholders, and even your students' families can all play a part in building that network.
Communication builds trust, creates opportunities for improvement, and builds on what already works — and orients every stakeholder to that guiding north star.