Michael Conn, Ph.D

Hope Street Group Network Member Interview with Michael Conn, Ph.D, Senior Vice President of Research at the Student Research Foundation

Michael Conn headshotThe Student Research Foundation (SRF) serves as the nation’s voice for young people’s career aspirations and provides relevant research around career, academic and life pathways. What originally drew you to this work, and what have been some of the most surprising findings from your research?

I’ve been working in the positive youth development field for a long time. My Executive Director Ed Doody has also been in the educational development space for a long time. Through discussion, we realized there was a crying need for what he called, “kitchen table conversation” information for parents of students, student themselves and educators to utilize when making decisions about the path forward for students. Now, I’m mainly talking about high school students, but students can be life long learners, as well, and that’s something that we’re looking at. As we looked around to see what was out there, we really didn’t find a place where you could get the intersection of information about academic pathways, career pathways and life skills in general. So that’s what we are pulling together; it’s a very basic idea. I have to say, the career pathway aspect has really resonated strongly as a crying need, when in conversation with organizations and individuals.

The nature of work and the workforce has undergone significant transformations over the past few years, affecting grown adults and students alike. How have you seen research around pathways into 21st century jobs reflect these changes?

I know Hope Street Group is very aware of this as well; in the past, the emphasis was almost solely on academic achievement and college access and graduation in particular, and now that’s shifted quite a bit. There’s a much more diverse array of possibilities, and there’s a conversation going on now about what actually is the best choice for students to make as they are thinking about their lives moving forward. Some of the research, some of which is included on our website, touches on that aspect. That’s a major shift, though it’s far from complete. I know Hope Street Group is an expert in this area in terms of figuring out how to systematically pull them together. One thing I would add is that the world of work shifts and goes through transformations much more quickly than it used to. There’s definitely a challenge for individuals, corporations and educational institutions that are supporting students of all ages to keep adapting.

Hope Street Group has recently released Making Makers: Rebuilding the Manufacturing Workforce Through Competencies and Credentialing, which examines recent efforts to improve the manufacturing workforce system and provide recommendations for an integrated model. SRF has also recently published a report on career and technical education with The Manufacturing Institute. What conditions have made these efforts so timely, and what other sectors do you see as ripe for change?

There’s been a crying need among groups like the Manufacturing Institute and SkillsUSA to know more about the student’s point of view on how their current educational experiences are working for them and how that might support their career path going forward. There’s really been a dearth of information about the student’s voice and point of view, and that’s what we were trying to get at in this project. And we’re continuing on actually. We have another wave coming up in the back to school season with a follow-up survey, so we’ll be able to do some comparisons in the future.

One of the key findings, and one of the surprising things to me, was how students’ own interests and experiences popped up to the top when we asked them to indicate from a check off list which of the following were influences on their future career pathway. It was the highest by almost two-thirds and the interpretation through conversations with the Manufacturing Institute and SkillsUSA was that it really reinforced the importance of working directly with students to offer them experiences that help them formulate what they might be good at, and want to do, and to understand what would be required of them in the workforce.

Caring adults are still very important, we see that in the research as well–mothers, fathers, teachers, etc–though perhaps not as high as some people would have expected. The real surprise for me was that social media ranked so low. We all know that people of all ages are on social media, and perhaps it’s really important for communication, but it was striking that it didn’t seem to be as important in figuring out future career pathways. That’s a really interesting aspect, because organizations may think that they can use social media to communicate with students and life long learners about career pathways, and perhaps that’s not the way to go; they need more direct experience. Another thing that was interesting when we ask students about how they might have come in contact with employers as a result of their career and technical education program, job shadowing and informational sessions were at the top, while some things that you consider more direct employment like co-ops and internships ranked lower, and this, to me, calls out for more emphasis on that aspect in future programs.

You all know from your work at Hope Street group how important being in direct contact with work experiences can be, and we see it in other countries. The apprenticeship model in Germany is often held up as an example of something that works well from the secondary level onward that gives that kind of experience. It was sort of a glass half-empty/glass half-full look in the sense that there are a lot of good things happening, particularly for students who are involved in career and technical student organizations where they have programmatic experiences but, at the same time, there was still a lot of room for growth.

Another area we have been in conversation about–it’s sort of a subset of STEM–is cybersecurity. It’s another sector where there is a lot happening right now. There’s a crying need for people with skillsets to fill highly-skilled jobs, and there’s a gap, both in candidates being prepared and the educational system preparing people to enter those kinds of professions.

Hope Street Group has recently launched Health Career Pathways, a national initiative in partnership with the White House and the Advisory Board to advance a competency-based career pathways system in healthcare. As the movement for competency-based career pathways continues to grow, what do you think this will mean for students across the country, both those who choose the traditional 4-year higher ed route and those who take alternate career pathways?

What I see happening in the future is a coming together of the direct experiential learning–career and technical education–with higher education, with various on-ramps along the way. And, once again, Hope Street Group President and CEO Martin Scaglione has spoken eloquently about this, and I think he’s on the right track. There will be a different model going forward, where it won’t be that when you finish your secondary education or two-year degree, you’re finished and you work a job for life. What in the past might have been seen as career and technical education, I think will become much more integrated into all forms of education on a different level. I was just reading an article the other day that was all about the healthcare sector where, in the state of Kentucky, they were discussing a Career and Technical education program that prepares students for health careers that also integrates AP Biology and AP Chemistry into the high school curriculum for those students. So students will then be prepared to go on to any level of post-secondary education that they choose and/or into the workforce.

Finally, what is some of the exciting work you are involved in that you would want to share with our network?

We’re in a lot of conversations about research collaborations with organizations and coalitions. One example is the 50K Coalition, which is a collaboration spearheaded by four engineering associations: the National Society of Black Engineers, the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, the Society of Women Engineers and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. The 50K that’s being referenced is a goal of graduating 50 thousand 4-year engineering graduates every year by 2025. The current total is about 30 thousand and there’s a shortfall. They’re very much looking at the needs of the workplace and what needs to happen at all different levels of education, from pre-K all the way up. That’s one of the collaborations we’re a part of that’s very exciting.

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