Helping Youth Explore the Realities of Today’s Economy

Susie Puskar discusses workforce development initiatives for youth in Allegheny County

Susie Puskar

Susie Puskar is the director for youth innovation at Partner4Work, an organization that connects funding, expertise, and opportunities to develop a thriving workforce in the Pittsburgh region. Susie focuses on career pathways and exploration for Pittsburghers between the ages of 14 and 24. Here, she talks to Remake Learning about the changing world of work and some of Partner4Work’s responses to those challenges.

How is the world of work changing and how is Partner4Work changing along with it?

30 or 40 years ago, a high school diploma was enough for many workers. That’s changed. A high school diploma is a starting point now for a career of lifelong learning.

This does not necessarily mean everyone needs a 4-year college degree! There are many careers available [in high demand] that do not require a degree, but you might need a specific industry credential. We help youth to understand what their options are and how they can access them.

Another thing that has changed is there is an expectation now for high school students to be involved in a lot of extracurricular activities through school. That leaves very little time for paid work, and yet youth learn to work by working. Having those “first jobs” is critically important in making sure people learn the skills necessary to succeed in the workplace. We have tried to answer this trend by funding opportunities for paid work through summer and year-long programs.

Do youth have to be in school to receive support from your organization?

We also serve Out of School Youth, which could mean someone who has graduated high school but has a barrier to unemployment such as parenting, a criminal background, low or remedial math skills, English Language Learners or could mean a young adult who has dropped out of high school. We offer programs that focus on academic remediation, helping to get a GED, and prioritize work experience and occupational skills training.

How do you re-engage those students who have dropped out or become disengaged from the traditional education to employment pipeline?

For out of school youth we are looking for programs that help those youth get their GED or diploma and then figure out what comes next in terms of industry training or skill training. We have programs that focus on tech, construction, culinary, or a whole host of other opportunities.

We know from years of experience that soft skills are critical to employers and adult mentoring has a measurable positive impact on young adults, so we ask our partners to include mentoring and soft skill development in their programs. They’re also doing financial literacy and skill training all along but they’re following up with these young adults for a full year after they finish a program.

That length of exposure to a program can help some youth who struggle with getting a job or leave their job for one reason or another. Knowing they have a place to go back to is really important for achieving long term success.

What work skills do your programs help to teach?

We focus on baseline, or soft skills and occupational skills linked with industry need. We try to fund a good variety of programs to create multiple entry points for youth and young adults into the workforce system matching their career interests. We work with partners like Google to train youth in everything from basic tech skills to coding and cyber security. Our workforce development programs help youth to explore STEM careers, but also help high school students get the skills necessary to succeed in these careers.

Another element is preparation for professional exams for youth who would like to enter trade unions. Math skills are critically important to be able to [score well on entry exams], so we make explicit connections between the academic math skills and the occupational skills for youth who might not understand how they are using Algebra or Trigonometry in their career field.

We’re hearing more and more about “soft skills” lately. What makes them so important?

Baseline skills are incredibly important. Learning to communicate with diverse audiences and make sure you are able to work in teams only comes with practice. We are really talking about communication fluency and it can be a different language–the ability to code switch and be able to talk to your boss one way and your peers another way.

Another thing that’s important to practice is resiliency. I don’t mean to imply that young adults are not resilient, because they are incredibly so. But it’s a different set of skills in the workplace. For instance, some of our young adults miss the bus on their first day of work. They might feel defeated, and not go in at all. We make sure they have that space to practice the skill of calling a supervisor to say, “I missed the bus and I’m going to be late. What can I do about that?”

Every generation thinks the next generation is less prepared or has behavioral issues. The reality is that…every generation struggles with those skills, and you only learn to have these types of conversations through practice.

We can’t just say, “kids these days don’t have workplace skills.” We have to say, “how do we help build those skills?” That’s our obligation to young adults looking to make their way in the world and what our work is: building the ability to practice problem-solving and the ability to resolve conflict with co-workers.

Students playtest a career-readiness game in the Simcoach Skill Arcade / Photo: Ben Filio

Students playtest a career-readiness game in the Simcoach Skill Arcade / Photo: Ben Filio

How can technology be leveraged to help young people gain these skills they need to prepare for the workforce?

Partner4Work has developed several video games with Simcoach Skill Arcade to prepare youth for interviewing and job seeking. The games help players practice skills like eye contact and posture during an interview or test safety regulations for various construction industries. These are all available for free. Gamification is something that’s interesting and provides opportunities for hard and soft skill development.

The Google suite of online digital skills training is also very useful. Young people can learn to use spreadsheets, word processors, and other tools. These just scratch the surface of available opportunities with technology!

What do employers need to know about how education and learning have changed in recent years?

I think it’s crucial for businesses to be involved in the classroom for a few reasons. With Learn and Earn, we see how transformative it can be for businesses to interact with young adults, really meet them and see what they are like. This helps create a much deeper understanding of their future pipeline of workers.

The other thing that’s important for businesses to know is that there is a lot of priority given to testing and making sure students have checked off several boxes in order to graduate from high school. That means a few different things. One thing is that there isn’t as much flexibility in the school day to add programming or additional opportunity. You have a lot of districts that have limited resources and are pulled in a lot of different directions. They have limited capacity to implement programs, because there are policy requirements they have to meet.

Businesses can be advocates, take the stand that in order to have a workforce that’s prepared, we need education to have the flexibility to better prepare students. Businesses can make a compelling case for creating policy change.

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