How Out-of-School Time Programs Support Workforce Preparation in Arkansas

This is a guest post by Laveta Wills-Hale, the Network Director of the Arkansas Out of School Network.

As the holidays season is upon us and the first half of the school year has come to an end, we have an opportunity to reflect upon the myriad of experiences that many children have had over the year and begin planning for next summer.

Many were fortunate to take family vacations and trips to museums, participate in sports leagues, attend special camps or just read a good book. We also know that afterschool and summer is the perfect time to expose children and youth to the kinds of experiences that will help prepare them for the workplace and careers in the long run. Resiliency, collaboration, teamwork, communication skills, time management and problem solving are key components of the arsenal of skills that all children need in order to be successful in college, careers and life in general.

These skills are commonly referred to as “workforce skills” and have been identified as essential skills by many employers in addition to industry specific or technical skills. We also know that the acquisition of these skills doesn’t just happen by chance. They have to be taught, and one of the best places to teach them is in an environment that is rooted in positive youth development, with supportive adults and peer learning groups through engaging, hands-on learning experiences that occur overtime.  In other words, an afterschool or summer learning program.

As I reflect on my own experiences as a young person, I can easily see how my early exposure to successful work place habits and 21st century skills was shaped by my Out-of-School Time (OST) experiences. My first work experience of picking tomatoes in the summer heat in rural southeast Arkansas certainly taught me about perseverance and being self-directed, but it was my involvement in a public speaking project in my local 4-H program that helped me develop my foundational skillset that I now use daily as I travel around Arkansas engaging new partners on the connection between afterschool and workforce development.  Fortunately, I was surrounded by adults who connected me to these opportunities, but far too many families are left to figure it out on their own. The irony is that many afterschool and summer programs are exposing, teaching and motivating young people to become workforce ready on a daily basis. Our challenge – and opportunity – is to provide more access to these programs, focus on quality curriculum and skill attainment, and measure what and how kids are learning.

It’s a heavy lift, but as I think about the programs in Arkansas that are tackling the workforce preparation issue head-on, I am encouraged. The University of Arkansas Little Rock’s Children International Summer Camp called Mind-Your-Own Business (MYOB) uses a time-tested curriculum to teach children from Kindergarten on up about developing business plans and product development.

It’s not an easy thing to do, but each summer the students prototype ideas for products like jewelry, greeting cards and other useful items, and develop the products. The merchandise is sold in the local River Market. The proceeds are then donated to a charity chosen by the MYOB Board of Directors, which is comprised of children.

We know exactly what the children were taught, what they learned, how they accomplished their goals and what funds were raised.  That’s the kind of experience that builds the foundation for success later in life.

State and Local Policy Matters

Even as we point to examples of successful out-of-school time programs that are making the connection to workforce preparation, we know that a coordinated strategy that aligns these individual successes into a well-executed collaborative effort is essential.

In Arkansas, Governor Hutchinson has convened legislators, educators and business leaders to think through a high-level systemic approach to align state agencies’ efforts with the workforce goals of business and industry. Governor Hutchinson’s recent appointment as the Chair of the Education and Workforce Committee of the National Governors Association bodes well for this work moving forward.

The Arkansas Out of School Network ‘s (AOSN) commitment to  expanding  opportunities for youth  through STEM and workforce preparation partnerships is most evident in its work with the Arkansas STEM Coalition, as well as, its support of the Museum of Discovery Network and the Arkansas Girls STEM Collaborative.  Most recently, AOSN was awarded a grant from the STEM Next Fund in support of a STEM Ignite project to work in partnership with Nucor Steel to develop a community-based maker space to teach workforce skills to youth . The hope is that the space will become an example for similar projects in other areas of the state.

We can also point to city examples, such as the city of Little Rock’s efforts to support the Network of Southern Economic Mobility (NSEM) to address the challenge of creating economic mobility for all of its citizens, especially youth without a clear pathway. Little Rock’s Youth Master Plan also included a dedicated focus on workforce skill attainment through participation in the city’s neighborhood based prevention programs funded by the city’s Prevention Intervention and Treatment tax levy.

The recent reauthorization of the Carl Perkins Act, often referred to as the Career and Technical Education Act, presents a new opportunity to work with cities and state agencies that have traditionally focused on in-school and K-12 solutions. The Act now includes community-based partners like OST programs to create an effective and relevant workforce preparation pathway with allowable funds to support afterschool programming in grades 5 and above.

Every state has an entity like the Arkansas Out of School Network, dedicated to improving the quality and quantity of afterschool learning experiences in their respective states. I encourage city officials and their business partners to connect with their respective statewide afterschool network to partner on these important issues. If we are to create a future workforce that meets the needs of our changing economy, we need everyone working together to lift up our youth – and afterschool and summer programs can be the perfect time and place to do it.

wills-hale.jpgAbout the Author: Laveta Wills-Hale is the Network Director of the Arkansas Out of School Network, one of the 50 Statewide Afterschool Networks.