Closing the Workforce Gap Collaboratively

Part 2: How Strategic SWP Support Catalyzes Regional CTE 

How does the Strong Workforce Program actually work? Behind the scenes in the North Far North region, it takes a village to close the workforce gap, relying on a built-in support network to help career technical education launch more students than ever before into in-demand careers. 

From application support to development of new programs to meet labor market needs, the flourishing grant program is the definition of a team effort. 

Unparalleled Support: NFN Region Goes ‘Above and Beyond’ for CTE

“Every round of grant funding, we provide a huge amount of technical assistance,” says Tanya Meyer, one of the state’s nine K-14 technical assistance providers who do the tough work of administering the Strong Workforce Program. In the NFN region alone, Meyer oversees 305 projects and more than $100 million in grant money, making every dollar count for CTE.

She says, “The North Far North goes above and beyond in the resources and support we provide.”

Regional support and goal accountability are the cornerstones of the Strong Workforce program. Here is a run-down of all the high-touch assistance provided to K-14 institutions in the region to help keep CTE strong:

The 4-1-1 on LMI: Data-Driven Education Excellence

The region regularly gets together in SWP engagement sessions, where educators team up to build the local talent pipeline. The last session had a visit from the Centers of Excellence (COE) for Labor Market Research, which produces in-depth data to support regional program development. They presented best practices for accessing and utilizing labor market information, a vital component of SWP applications.

“We address workforce questions, such as which occupations are in demand? Is that demand increasing? And what are the typical education and training requirements that align with those occupations?” says Sara Phillips, Regional Director of the Far North COE. “We really introduce folks to labor market information and explain why it’s important.” 

The COE also creates useful data tools for K-14 educators to ensure school pathways align with workforce demand.

“We need to make sure that we’re setting students up for success,” says Ebony Benzing, Interim Regional Director of the Greater Sacramento COE. “We can do that by looking at the data, knowing what our employers are looking for, and aligning our programs.”

The session participants discovered how to access the region’s industry sector profiles, learning more about local job openings, salary schedules, and demand.

“It’s a one-stop shop for finding out all the information schools need about industry sectors,” says Meyer.

Equity Training Increases Education and Career Access

When SWP applications went out this year, Meyer also provided two vigorous training sessions on designing equitable CTE programs, with helpful strategies to increase DEI efforts in curriculum and outreach. Giving historically underrepresented students an equal opportunity for economic advancement is fundamental to the Strong Workforce Program, which has built-in accountability, ensuring that no student is left behind.

“We tend to have really diverse student populations,” says Benzing. “Our community colleges have the ability to infuse more diversity in terms of gender, race, and ethnicity into the workforce.”

The COE helps schools utilize data to see where disparate impacts might occur in student outcomes and pinpoint where they could support increased diversity. “Bringing that data to the fore helps build inclusion,” says Benzing. “Connecting marginalized communities to these opportunities is happening in the community college space in a way people can access.”

Application Assistance: Helping Schools Put a Strong Foot Forward

Schools also participated in what Meyer calls an “RFA (Request for Applications) deep dive” that went through the SWP application process step by step. The grant is highly selective, so Meyer made sure that schools had the best chance for acceptance. 

Other helpful training sessions this year included crafting good problem statements and project objectives for the SWP selection process. Like a mini grant-writing workshop, the webinar broke down the application process to help schools secure funding. Another session on understanding SWP rubrics followed, assisting candidates in getting a good application score. These webinars are extremely helpful for first-time and returning applicants alike, covering everything they need to succeed.

“I did a huge amount of training in the last couple of months to make sure everybody had useful, accurate information,” says Meyer. “It is a very competitive grant, so we want our grantees to have the best chance to score well and get funded.”

Year-Round Support Keeps CTE Strong

While the application process offers solid assistance, plenty of support is also available year-round, including SWP orientations and fiscal reporting webinars. Plus, boots-on-the-ground help is always available via the region’s K-12 Pathway Coordinators:

K-12 Pathway Coordinators Bridge K-12 and Community College CTE

California’s SWP boasts 70+ pathway coordinators throughout the state, one serving every community college district.

“They bridge the programs between the K-12 and the community college level,” says Meyer. “They help encourage conversations around dual enrollment and build career pathways in alignment with community colleges.”

Pathway coordinators help keep programs on track for their objectives. They also work closely with the Centers of Excellence, keeping regional LMI at the forefront.

“If a school is struggling to provide work-based learning in their CTE program, they can go to the pathway coordinator for assistance,” says Meyer. “Their job is to provide resources and help schools develop strong pathways.”

Take K-12 Pathway Coordinator Christina Overmiller, who organizes monthly professional learning communities for CTE and dual enrollment administrators, high school teachers, community college faculty, and more.

“The purpose is getting people together, building relationships and community, and giving them opportunities to have conversations they might not have otherwise,” says Overmiller. From meeting weekly with the dual enrollment team at the college to working with K-12 partners, bringing industry to the table, and even doing outreach with students, Overmiller is the glue that helps hold her region’s CTE together.

“K-12 Pathway Coordinators live in so many spheres,” says Overmiller. “If our role were a Venn diagram, it would be a ball of knots because of all the different things we touch.”

Far from a grant compliance overseer, Overmiller says her job is to support CTE educators. “We are there to be a resource and a guide,” says the coordinator. “We check in to see how they are doing with their grant plan, answer questions, brainstorm ideas if there are challenges or hurdles, and continue to be that resource for them.”

For Overmiller, Strong Workforce’s built-in support and alignment between K-12 and community colleges is what sets the grant apart and is the secret to the region’s CTE success:

“The big difference from other grant programs is that in Strong Workforce, K-12 applicants must show purposeful partnership with the community college,” says Overmiller. “It is a requirement that empowers conversations between the two institutions for long-term planning, making programs more robust and focusing on getting students what they need to be successful through specific, measurable objectives.”

The Future of SWP: Closer to Closing the Workforce Gap

Strong Workforce makes the region’s CTE really count, giving students the high-demand skills they need for future careers. With powerful K-14 pathways, they can earn industry certifications sooner, sometimes while still in high school, and obtain a living wage.

“We are improving the upward mobility for our population,” says Meyer. “One of the things people can really look forward to is closing this workforce gap.

“Because of SWP, we have a robust system working from the K-12 to the community college to the workforce, really getting students into the workforce pipeline early — and we have people supporting every step of the way to make it happen.”

December 2023