Academies, American style

The annual conference of the National Academies Foundation is big: 1,400 people from schools and employers from across the United States, all engaged in some way or another with the now 565 different US Career Academies which serve over 70,000 young people.

The US Career Academies model is especially important to people with an interest in research into employer engagement in education. As analysis by Orr et al (2007) has shown, a statistically distinctive element of the US Career Academies learning experience is the extent of employer engagement. Compared to young people (aged 15-18) on other US programmes of study, students are significantly more likely to take part in career-focused activities with employers and work-related learning. James Kemple’s 2008 study remains the best single piece of research on the labour market impacts of participation in a learning programme so rich in employer engagement. His study, tracking the earnings of two comparable groups of young people, distributed initially by random assignment, from High School to age 26 found that graduates of the US Career Academies programme earned 11% more than comparable peers eight years after High School graduation with those young adults whose teenage characteristics suggested highest risks of drop-out earning 17% more.

I was invited to the Washington DC conference to present findings from the new Routledge collection Understanding Employer Engagement in Education and found American colleagues grappling with many of the same issues as found in other OECD countries. Concerns over youth unemployment and skills mismatch run deep. In the US, as in the UK, the labour market cannot be said to be operating effectively, efficiently or equitably when, as we heard, only 7% of American engineers are women and only 3% from minority communities.

The US Career Academies model is distinctive from its British namesake but recognisable by many working in the UK and internationally in its elements. Within coherent programmes of academic study focused around vocational areas (Finance, IT, Engineering, Hospitality and Tourism, Heath Sciences), young people are taught in groups through applied pedagogies rich in work-related learning with careers activities, job shadowing, workplace visits, mock interviews, CV/resume workshops, classroom engagement and a six week paid internship core attributes of the model. As J. D. Hoye, CEO of the National Academies Foundation which drives the US Career Academies community, says the model is all about relationships. Every US Career Academy is supported by an Advisory Board of 20-30 members drawn from the local community of employers in related industrial areas. These are people who act as advocates for, and key supporters of, the work of the Academy and are vital to the success of the educational model.

Hearing Connecticut Advisory Board member, Bernie Sheridan, describe the role of the Board, I learnt a new word: ‘friend-raiser’. Successful academies are adept in bringing potentially interested people into their schools through open days, business breakfasts and lunches, exposing them to young people interested in careers in their economic areas in a model with similarities to the Taskforce’s 2010 Visit our Schools and Colleges campaign week. Having met the students, willingness to provide some initial support is commonplace, growing frequently into more systematic engagement. Through such processes, schools raise friends as well as funds.

Interest in research into the ultimate economic impact of such educational models on the lives of young people to help engage employers is strong and in response to demand, over the summer we will be producing a short overview paper noting some of the key international studies evidencing the adult employment premiums which can be related to teenage employer contacts.

NAF 2014 – Anthony Mann