Mayor Stodola: Afterschool and Summer Learning Absolutely Critical to Hone “Soft Skills” in Workforce Development

NLC President and Little Rock, Arkansas, Mayor Mark Stodola explains the importance of city officials and local business leaders investing in afterschool and summer learning programs as a way to address the “workforce skills crisis.”

Last week, seven mayors and corporate executives from their respective cities met in Saint Paul, Minnesota, to explore new pathways for using afterschool and summer learning programs to help children and youth develop the workforce skills needed for the 21st Century economy.

The Mayors and Corporate Leaders Symposium: Afterschool and Summer Learning as a Strategy to Address the Workforce Skills Crisis was hosted by National League of Cities (NLC) leadership – NLC President and Mayor of Little Rock, Arkansas, Mark Stodola, First Vice President and Mayor of Gary, Indiana, Karen Freeman-Wilson, and former-NLC President and Mayor of Saint Paul Christopher Coleman – and focused on how city and local business leaders can work together to incorporate workforce skill building into afterschool and summer learning programs, with a special emphasis on social and emotional skills (sometimes referred to as “soft, foundational or employability skills”).

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As the symposium was about to get underway, Mayor Stodola sat down with staff from the NLC Institute for Youth, Education, and Families (YEF Institute) to talk about the importance of social and emotional skills in a strong local workforce and how cities and their local business partners can invest in or partner with afterschool and summer learning programs to help strengthen those skills in children and youth.

YEF Institute: We hear a lot about America’s “workforce skills gap,” how much of that is related to interpersonal skills, responsibility and other “soft skills?” Are these “soft skills” key for succeeding in the modern workplace?

Mayor Stodola: In fact, the soft skills issue is critical as a basis for any kind of future work endeavor for young people who are becoming adults and want to, obviously sooner or later, get into the workforce – whether they are doing it immediately after high school, or whether they’re going to college or not. There’s no question that the soft skills issue – the responsibility, the work ethic, the ability to pass a drug test, the ability to show up on time for work, and the ability to communicate with people in an intelligent way and work as a team– is absolutely critical.

In Little Rock, we’re working on that in a variety of different ways. We, as a city, have long been hiring young people in the summertime. We hire 700 young people ages 16 to 21. The City provides a week-long training program to give them these soft skills, as well as opportunities to practice these skills,  understand what it means to be responsible in the workplace, and get exposed to new careers. It’s been very helpful. We’ve obviously had another 700 people who wanted a job, but the city did not have the funding for that.

We want to network with our business leaders and work closely with the Little Rock Chamber to develop the workforce that is needed today and to prepare youth for the workforce we’ll need tomorrow. We also hope to work together to figure out how we can increase our program to get the 700 other young people into these training opportunities.

Given the vision you have for a strong economy in your city, how is the city along with local business leaders addressing the growing skills gap?

We’re doing our part in terms of trying to reach out to young people at an early age. I see three different areas here that really need work.

The first group is the young people age 16 to 21 who are in high school or recent graduates from high school. Some are in college. Some of them are not in college, but they’re trying to get some training.

Second, we also have a group of “disconnected youth” who have dropped out of school and don’t have a GED or credential. We’re particularly concerned about these young people because they are older kids without skills and without jobs. Many of them are looking for the quick fix to survive, and that means they may take risks to make money and end up in bad situations. I know because we’ve had an uptick in crime in Little Rock this year. In my experience though– I’ve been a prosecutor, city attorney, public defender and now mayor– what young people really want and need is a job, but they are not equipped.  As mayor, I’ve gotten out on the streets and talked to young people, and what they want is a job, but they really don’t know the first thing about getting a job. They don’t know what the skill sets are that they need. We’re talking about a large group of kids and unfortunately, a disproportionate number of these youth come from our minority communities. Therefore, we have a lot of work to do to ensure we are engaging them and training them with skills to get these jobs, and put them on a career path to change not only their lives, but their families and future generations.

The third group I hear about from business leaders are those that lack the trade and technical skills. It is the welders, folks in the construction industry, and other people who don’t necessarily go to college, but can get certification in these valuable trades that will give them a very good job with a high and stable income. The problem is that we’re not able to fill all of those positions either. I have businesses calling me all the time trying to figure out how we can work with the school system to develop these skills so that our community has skilled workers to take these jobs. We have a vocational-technical school and a program called Excel that I think is pretty interesting and will talk about at this Symposium.  The Excel Program focuses on high school students and gives them a chance to learn about job opportunities, so they can make a decision about whether going straight to college is the right decision or if they seek immediate employment that will give them the ability to earn a good living.

What role do you see for afterschool and summer learning programs to address these issues?

Afterschool and summer learning programs are very important, and they need to start at a very early age. Little Rock actually has been a vanguard and a leader in this area. Since 1994, the City of Little Rock has been funding afterschool programs – targeted geographically in different parts of the city to provide educational and recreational opportunities.  Our community passed a sales tax increase in 2011 of 1 cent to generate more resources to support these critical programs for our most vulnerable youth.  Little Rock citizens supported it because they understood that these programs help to reduce juvenile crime. So, now the City’s annual investment in afterschool and summer programs, gang intervention, and youth development and other treatment programs is $6 million a year. We take these issues seriously and want to play a role in solving them.

As a nation, are we doing enough to tap the potential of these programs as a resource to help young people develop employability skills? 

No, nationally I don’t think we are doing enough and I’m glad this meeting is focused on it. In Little Rock, clearly, we invest in afterschool and summer learning programs because we see them as a key way to engage our youth, but I still think they are definitely an untapped resource to develop these social and emotional skills, the employability skills or workforce skills. Whatever you want to call them, they are real skills and we need our youth to have them. It actually is a crisis our businesses face. They are communicating to city officials that they currently have jobs they cannot fill and are projecting greater challenges to find skilled youth in the near future.  Our afterschool programs are in schools, recreation centers, churches, and all throughout the community. Kids go to these programs and spend up to 15 hours or more a week there. Since young people are only in school 20% of their waking hours, it makes sense to maximize and fully utilize these programs to help prepare youth for future educational opportunities, the current and future workforce, and just to be successful in life.

We have a number of afterschool and summer programs in Little Rock, but I think we can serve our youth more effectively if we conducted a self-assessment to determine if they are addressing certain kinds of concepts and approaches to skill development. This Symposium addresses corporate support of afterschool and summer programs, so I think we could do a better job of connecting our corporate community with leaders in the youth development field to help them integrate workforce skill development aspect into their programming.

I think this Symposium will lead to action steps from the seven cities represented and will provide ideas for new strategies to engage their corporate sector on this issue. I’m excited to work with my corporate partner, Marla Johnson from Aristotle, Inc. and our Chamber of Commerce to figure out our next steps to lift up afterschool and summer programs as a strategy for closing the workforce skills gap in Little Rock. I have chosen the issue of workforce development as my primary agenda for my time as NLC President and I think of it broadly, starting early and working with children and youth to develop their skills so that they are more than ready when it’s time to enter the workforce of tomorrow.

In addition to Mayor Stodola, Mayor Freeman-Wilson and Mayor Coleman, city officials who took part in the symposium include Baltimore, Maryland Mayor Catherine Pugh; Chattanooga, Tennessee Mayor Andy Berke; Fort Worth, Texas Mayor Betsy Price; and Rochester, New York Mayor Lovely Warren.

Local corporate partners at the symposium included, Calvin Butler, Jr., CEO Baltimore Gas and Electric; Valoria Armstrong, president of Tennessee American Water in Chattanooga; Barbara M. Williams, partner at Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson LLP in Fort Worth; Vance Kenney, managing partner at 504 Redevelopment, LLC in Gary; Marla Johnson, CEO of Aristotle Inc. and Long Range Planning Chair at the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce; Tyrone Reaves, president of Truform Manufacturing/YAMTEP, Inc. in Rochester; and Chris Hilger, CEO, and Kristi Fox, Vice President of Talent Solutions and Chief Diversity Officer at Securian Financial Group in Saint Paul.

National League of Cities Corporate Partners at the symposium included Tammy Hartman, vice president of Corporate Affairs at Clear Channel Outdoor; Leanne Holmberg, regional human resources director, and Keith Morris, senior director of Community Relations at Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.; and Richard Leadbetter, global manager for local Government Industry Solution at Esri.

The Mayors and Corporate Leaders Symposium: Afterschool and Summer Learning as a Strategy to Address the Workforce Skills Crisis was made possible with the generous support of The Wallace Foundation.

For more information on the NLC Institute for Youth, Education, and Families’ work on Afterschool and Summer Learning, click here.

Bela_Spooner2_readyAbout the Authors: Bela Shah Spooner is the Program Manager of Expanded Learning at the National League of Cities Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.


Audrey_Hutchinson_125x150Audrey M. Hutchinson is the Director of Education and Expanded Learning at the National League of Cities Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.