Early College Career Exploration Through STEM Courses and Apprenticeships in Advanced Manufacturing
In the wake of COVID-19, Greater Cleveland’s low-income families need a stronger pathway out of poverty. Cleveland’s residents are getting poorer: the city’s overall poverty rate reached 34.6% in 2018, up from 27% in 2006. For children, that rate reached 50.9%, up from 41.9% in 2006. Racial inequity is also clear and present: Black residents in Cleveland have a median income of $28k, as opposed to $60k for whites; 52.2% of those living in poverty are black, and 50% of black children live in poverty; and the pre-coronavirus unemployment rates for whites (5.4%), Hispanics (10.7%), and African-Americans (16.5%) demonstrated the clear inequities. College is out of reach for most Cleveland young people: of the 2,600 CMSD graduates each year, over 2,000 will not attain a college degree (CMSD 2019). As a result, Cuyahoga County in has 21,000 “opportunity youth,” young people ages 16-24 who are neither employed nor in school; in other words, 1 in 7 Cleveland youth need assistance in finding a career direction.
At the same time, hundreds of high-wage, entry-level manufacturing jobs are open and available in Greater Cleveland. While automotive and aerospace manufacturing jobs have declined because of the pandemic, those jobs have been replaced by growth in the personal protective equipment (PPE), medical device, and food manufacturing industries. These jobs pay well: compared to the U.S. economy overall, manufacturing employs a higher share of non-college educated workers, with higher median hourly earnings, than other non-college educated workers, with a greater likelihood that employers provide benefits such as retirement contributions, tuition reimbursement, or healthcare insurance.
Founded by a partnership between MAGNET, the Cleveland Foundation in 2016, ECEC is allowing local students to start college in 11th grade and their careers in 12th grade. In the 2020-2021 school year, ECEC will connect students at ten Cleveland-area high schools to the wide availability of open, high-paying positions available in the region’s manufacturing sector. These middle-class jobs, available immediately after high school graduation, break the cycle of poverty amongst poor families and set students up for long-term success. Through paid internships, soft skill development, mentoring, and college classes, ECEC forms a holistic career pathway for students to explore.
ECEC has four essential objectives:
1. Raise awareness about manufacturing careers, especially amongst inner-city youth
2. Develop successful pathways for students that combine education and work into a long-term, lucrative career
3. Produce more skilled workers for our region’s workforce
4. Reinforce and grow connections between manufacturing businesses and the Cleveland community
And to reach those objectives, ECEC facilities three essential activities:
1. Work-based learning: ECEC facilitates a two-year paid internship, along with travel to and from that position.
2. Education and Training: Using College Credit Plus, ECEC students have the opportunity to earn up to 15 college credits. They also earn an industry-recognized credential that they can take to any future employer.
3. Support: ECEC offers mentoring, professional development, financial education, soft skills training, and other individualized student support, so ECEC graduates not only get a job but are well-prepared for their careers.
In short, the MAGNET team has built ECEC to address inequities, improve education, and create more middle-class employment in Northeast Ohio. ECEC students will have higher employment rates, better starting salaries, and more successful long-term careers. In many cases, these students will be the first in their families to go to college, ending the cycle of poverty. Local communities with the ECEC program will prosper, as they will have more middle-class employment, growing manufacturing companies, more stable families, and more paths to success for young people entering the workforce.
BRIEF SUMMARY OF FINDINGS
In early 2018, MAGNET received ITEST Award No. 1763558 to research the impact of ECEC on increasing high school student awareness of STEM careers, and improving their proficiency in critical STEM areas, through work-based learning. The project researched the effectiveness of the ECEC program in supporting students STEM awareness and learning, interest and motivation to pursue STEM careers - especially manufacturing and engineering, and ultimately, post-graduation connections to STEM postsecondary or career pathways. Because of COVID-19 and the shutdown of schools in March 2020, this research has been extended and is still ongoing, with the data below covering only the period from August 1, 2019 to January 31, 2020.
This initial research shows that ECEC is effective in changing students’ perceptions of engineering and manufacturing, with the vast majority of students (94%) seeing these fields as desirable and achievable after ECEC activities. Many of the measures reinforced previous research indicating that inner-city students have little knowledge of STEM occupations due to limited exposure and lack of knowledge, particularly if the participants do not know anyone employed in the industry (ie, Coates 2016). Most students had positive images of STEM professions; they also had stronger dispositions towards STEM job security, value, reputations, and financial success. The summer camp activity and site visits to employers prior to work experience placements proved to be highly impactful components of the program.
ECEC students had an unexpected affinity towards math and science (80% and 86% respectively); while interest in these fields is valuable for manufacturing, this comfort and self-confidence is something the program can leverage and build upon. Similarly, engineering and manufacturing were the top career choices, but surprisingly, energy, chemistry, and computer science were also sought-after careers.
Even with these successes, a critical challenge has arisen: student retention throughout the program and into employment, particularly for students of color. Roughly 25 percent of seniors did not complete the program as a result of quitting or being fired by their employer; and of those that successfully completed the full-year internship, just 61% received a job offer. Three key findings in the previous research highlight an important disconnect that contributes to attrition and sets the stage for the research proposed here:
- Finding 1: Nearly all employers report that students need improvement in workplace readiness, professionalism, and soft skills. These issues contribute to workplace performance gaps and are strongly related to reasons for firing.
- Finding 2: Nearly all school stakeholders (ie, administrators and teachers) report that employers need to improve their developmental mindset for working with underserved and underrepresented youth. There is a frequently stated belief among school officials that cultural and generational communication challenges contribute to this gap.
- Finding 3: Students frequently reported concerns that employers did not understand their personal circumstances and challenges, contributing to a cycle of antagonism leading to attrition.
This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.