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Preparing students for Vermont's promising jobs

As a researcher in education and workforce development, as a school board member, and—most importantly—as the mother of two young adults, I wrestle with the issues of preparing young people for successful careers.

We’ve all heard the cultural and economic trends that make today’s career prospects grimmer than for my generation or my parents’ generation: college tuition is accelerating at a much faster pace than income. Millennial graduates will have on average 15-20 jobs in their lifetime. When you add the impacts of rapid technological changes in the workplace and the effects of global markets, it’s a brew that can feel overwhelming and leave young people feeling adrift.  

How do we get students’ attention? I sit on the board of the Hannaford Career Center in Middlebury. The students that we work with and graduate are inspiringly passionate about their futures. Several times I have been moved to tears when one of our students loses themselves in a story they’re telling about a hands-on experience they had through our program. Whether it was observing eye surgery in our health careers program or fixing an old diesel tractor, their engagement and enthusiasm is contagious.

More schools could offer career education experiences that connect students to work environments. And we can all find ways to encourage young people to invest time learning about their career options. These efforts are especially important for students from lower-income families and first-in-family college students. The most influential direct correlation to career choice and success is a parent or close adult with that experience. That means our schools, our mentors, our career centers, and our faculty are going to have to work harder with students who face these additional challenges.

What are the most promising jobs and careers in Vermont?  Thankfully, there are high-pay, high-growth careers in Vermont. To find them, start with the McClure Foundation’s Pathways to Promising Careers website. It identifies the highest-paying jobs in Vermont with sustained job openings—identifying real opportunities for young (and even not so young) Vermonters.  The website sorts these according to education requirements and provides links to more details on specific careers. 

Despite the pessimistic national discussion about career opportunities, the website reveals some hopeful and surprising findings for Vermont. Did you know that you can still have a career that pays significantly over the state median income with only a high school diploma? It’s true, but the number of available jobs are few and they usually require extensive on-the-job training.  Examples include plumbers, insurance sales agents, and industrial machinery mechanics. 

Associate’s degrees offer significant and reliable career options as well, including dental hygienists, web developers, and management-level positions in the construction and transportation fields.

Most promisingly, bachelor’s degrees continue to be required for growing professions that pay above median wage. This category is so extensive that graduates would be hard-pressed not to find something that would interest them—marketing, sales, software development, teaching, accounting, and more.

There are leaders already working to connect students with these jobs in Vermont. The J. Warren and Lois McClure Foundation has provided grants to local initiatives such as the Kingdom Career Connect Program at the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship at Lyndon State College that exposes 8th graders in the Northeast Kingdom to regional career opportunities, and to the STEM equity pipeline project—educating elementary and middle school girls about careers in science, technology, engineering, and math. 

What can you do? As a parent, educator, or employer, you can encourage students to look for learning opportunities in work environments—job shadowing, internships, apprenticeships, summer employment, and after-school employment. Through them, students develop workplace skills and relationships with prospective employers as well as expertise they can include on their resumes. Perhaps most importantly, they can rule out careers they don’t want to pursue.

As a citizen, you can become a school board member or voice your ideas to your local elected officials—reminding them that all students deserve to graduate both college-ready and career-ready. As a donor, you can partner with other funders to ensure that existing programs—like Career & Technical Education—get the opportunity to succeed.

Promising pathways do exist in Vermont. The momentum is building and the timing is urgent.  

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