America’s Next Great Workforce Begins with Afterschool

This is a guest post by Richard Leadbeater, State Government Industry Manager at Esri.

This week, the National League of Cities (NLC) is convening a symposium of mayors and corporate leaders to discuss and share their perspective on the workforce skills (that have been referred to as “soft skills” or social and emotional skills) gap — and how afterschool and summer learning can be a strategy to address this gap.

The symposium will undoubtedly have an urban focus as the mayors attending are from medium and large cities, but I know the content will be applicable to most every city — big or small, urban or rural.

The symposium will have two main goals: one, to establish a baseline of understanding regarding the workforce skills crisis and to hear what skills 21st Century Cities and business leaders need and want in their future employees, and two, to develop some actionable ideas for the mayors and corporate executives to take back to their communities to increase their business sector’s engagement in afterschool and summer programs to develop critical workforce skills.

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While the NLC has had a long-term focus on supporting municipal leadership for afterschool since its Institute for Youth, Education, and Families was created almost 18 years ago, it just so happens that the newly elected leader for 2018 — Mayor Mark Stodola of the City of Little Rock, Arkansas — has launched a presidential initiative which focuses on helping city leaders prepare their cities’ workforces to be competitive in the 21st century.

While I was honored, I didn’t understand at first why they invited me to this exciting symposium. I’m not an education specialist, but Esri is a corporate partner of the NLC and we are a technology company that most of the mayors can name. In preparing for this Symposium, I have realized that Esri is actually very well positioned to contribute in a meaningful way since we are very focused on supporting workforce development through schools. I just hadn’t thought about using afterschool and summer programs too, but it makes so much sense to tap those venues where kids are so hungry to learn while having fun in a less school-focused environment.

There is so much more corporations with specific expertise can do to ensure that young people are gaining skills that they’ll need for the future. I’m happy for this ‘right-place-right-time’ invite which has helped me broaden my thinking. Let me provide a preview of my thoughts.

One of my assignments for Esri is to support some of the government associations here in DC—they’re nicknamed the “Big 7”. The aim of my support is to create a dialogue with the elected officials and to translate, into their settings and language, technology in general, and GIS in particular. It’s not particularly easy to translate technologies and the solutions they may offer, into the high-level policy issues upon which they, as elected officials, focus their discussions. Policy is meant to guide without being prescriptive, be kept broad – at a high-level, and left general enough to be inclusive yet leniently focused on the base elements and issues at the root of the matter.

esri blog 1Education and the 21st century workforce is near the top issue for every one of the Big 7 members. It makes sense that this is a top issue, as it represents both the funds dedicated for education within local government—approximately 20-30% of the taxes collected—and the economic development activities that are needed to keep our local economies vibrant and growing.

Fortunately, the GIS community provides quite a lot of content and examples to offer this group of mayors and business leaders. If you are part of this community, you are probably aware of some of what I’m going to tell you. If you are not presently part of the GIS community, I will say that there is not one thing anyone can do to help address the skills gap and prepare for the 21st Century workforce: you must do many, many things all at once.

The GIS community knows that one can more intentionally engage students with maps. Children learn in a variety of ways, but visual learning is especially effective, and afterschool and summer programs are great places for this type of learning to occur. Using maps in the classroom illustrates geographic context of the lesson being taught by helping students connect lessons with real places. We know that spatial thinking supports both STEM and STEAM lesson plans and curriculum. Curriculum is particularly difficult as it requires tools and solutions that address particular education goals and elements. Software needs to be affordable, or free. Teachers need instruction too. They already have a day-job; we need to make technology easy to include in their lessons and support them with guidance.

The GeoMentor organization, organized by the American Association of Geographers (AAG), is just such a group. It developed in support of the ConnectEd program and now lives on in support of Esri’s School Program. It consists of professional and other experts that have committed to assist in the training and support of local teachers. The Esri School Program has supplied well over $1M of software since its inception.

Teaching students to think spatially is but one of the elements, an important one from my point of view, that our policy leaders at the local, state, and national levels must work on, but this one element has a great beginning. The symposium is tomorrow, but I’d like to hear from you. What programs are you involved with that can be grown to help every city in the US, and the world, train their children for the coming years? How can you partner with afterschool, summer learning, or in-school programs to leverage your resources and expertise to support skill development to ensure all of our children and youth have the chance to participate in the workforce of the future?

richard leadbetterAbout the author: Richard Leadbeater is the State Government Industry Manager at Esri. Learn more about Esri and the science of where.