Over 130 million Americans have filed for unemployment since March 2020 due to the economic disruptions caused by COVID-19. As economists work to describe and predict the short- and long-term impact of these unprecedented disruptions on workers and employers, the disparity and severity of the impact reflects the complexity of our national and systemic inequities.
Our economic recovery is equally complex, as job loss and new industry needs have reinforced national skill gaps and the exacerbated equity barriers for workers that are most in need of reskilling and upskilling to access the means to do so. Hiring is happening—according to Monster’s The Future of Work survey, 82% of employers plan to hire in 2021, with 40% planning to hire net new jobs. There is an urgent need for high-quality skill-building programs that remove these access barriers and provide paths to in-demand, sustainable jobs.
In South Carolina, while unemployment levels are lower than most states, there is a disproportionate impact on workers of color, of low income, those with a high school education or less, and females. State and national recovery plans, including the recently announced American Jobs Act, acknowledge the urgent need to make intentional investments in workforce development and career pathway programs as early as middle school to reverse centuries of policies that have perpetuated racial inequities and exclusion from social mobility and generational wealth not only for today’s workforce, but also the workforce of the future. South Carolina’s Career Technical Education (CTE) programs, particularly those that provide learning through work, are a central part of this strategy.
Through high-quality CTE programs and education-business partnerships, South Carolina is building its next-generation workforce to be resilient, adaptable and responsive to both needs of learners and employers. According to state data, businesses and students engaged in almost 83,000 work-based hands-on learning experiences in 2019-2020, ranging from apprenticeships to internships to facility tours and job-shadow programs. South Carolina invests over $21 million in state dollars each year to create, expand and provide the necessary equipment for CTE programs of study, as well as $3 million to support industry credential attainment for CTE participants.
CTE programs have impressive results and a positive return on investment, making them trusted investments for both learners and employers. During the 2019-2020 academic year, 16,038 learners completed a CTE program in South Carolina, with 55% achieving industry recognized credentials. These CTE program completers achieved a high school graduation rate of 98.4%, compared to the state’s overall graduation rate of 82.2%.
Apprenticeships are particularly impactful work-based learning experiences for both learner success and the state’s economic growth, and the American Jobs Plan features a national focus on expanding these programs. Apprenticeships are paid, structured experiences that started in the skilled trades, but have now expanded to include industries such as information technology, energy, healthcare and advanced manufacturing. Over 34,800 learners and 1,000 businesses participate in the South Carolina Apprenticeship program, and a study conducted by the University of South Carolina showed that for every dollar invested in the South Carolina Apprenticeship program, there is a $1.26 return on investment within five years.
It is this track record and need for a skilled talent pipeline that encouraged Sonoco, a global packaging company based out of Hartsville, to engage with the South Carolina apprenticeship system by employing part-time youth apprentices through a partnership with Darlington County Institute of Technology. “The [Institute] has provided some amazing students for internships,” shares Andrea White, Sonoco’s global director of SPS and organizational development. Such programs, she adds, “are necessary to ensure we have a talent pipeline for all of our skilled positions and help students explore the diversity of careers in manufacturing.”
With more than 5,000 manufacturing businesses in South Carolina and skilled manufacturing associates earning an average salary of $60,850 a year, manufacturing is essential to the state’s economy. James Richter, director of workforce development and member relations for the South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance, notes that manufacturers need more workers with diverse skill sets. CTE programs, he says, “are a proven strategy for students to gain the technical and digital literacy skills, as well as hands-on workplace experiences, to be well-equipped for careers in advanced manufacturing and related industries.”
Employers are also supporting virtual work-based learning. While coronavirus has disrupted where and how learners receive their education, South Carolina has been quick to innovate and support educators and employers through a virtual work-based learning toolkit, ensuring high quality career exploration experiences can continue, as well as addressing equity gaps that have previously prevented some learners from participating in traditional work-based learning experiences.
Simply put, learning through work works and is essential to an equitable economic recovery. Now is the time for significant public investment in such programs and increased employer engagement from businesses of all sizes. With this support, our nation can make the most of the past year’s disruption, remove barriers to sustainable careers and lay the path for a skilled future workforce.
Kimberly Green is the executive director of Advance CTE, which has represented state leaders of Career Technical Education for over 100 years. For the past 28 years, Kimberly A. Green has worked extensively on federal policy impacting CTE.
Angel H. Malone is the director of the Office of Career and Technical Education with the South Carolina Department of Education. She is passionate about her work for children in South Carolina and believes that a great education is the “expectation” not the exception.