The chatter of hundreds of high school students, teachers, mentors, and community volunteers fill the Lansing Convention Center in Lansing, Mich. with a hum of excitement. The students are about to face off in a series of competitions. Not as part of a spelling bee or sports event, but as a test of their employability skills.
GradNation has long believed that the high school experience should prepare students for what happens next. Work-based learning programs like Jobs for Michigan’s Graduates (JMG) are one way to give students the confidence, the support, and the skills they need to be successful in careers and civic life. The JMG model relies on the expertise of teachers, known as specialists, who are trained in curriculum related to work readiness and work-based learning. A GradNation Acceleration Initiative site, JMG is improving outcomes for its students by teaching a combination of social, emotional, and work-readiness skills.
Earlier this spring, JMG hosted its ninth annual Career Development Conference, bringing together the young people from across the state that it serves: students of color, low-income students, and students who could be off-track to graduate without strong supports. These young people compete in various challenges to test their work-based learning and employability skills, which include interviewing, marketing, and demonstrating knowledge of how to build a career. In this day-long conference, young people compete against each other and uplift each other all at the same time. I had a chance to talk to several JMG youth in attendance, and they shared some of the things that matter most: they deeply value their relationships with specialists and they believe that confidence is crucial to being prepared for careers.
Jobs for Michigan’s Graduates, an affiliate of Jobs for America’s Graduates, is a classroom-based model that uses specialists to teach courses within high schools. These specialists are part teacher, part mentor, part employment coach, and part friend. In their regularly scheduled JMG class, specialists teach students how to write a cover letter, participate in an interview, and apply those skills to college applications and postsecondary planning.
At the conference, the participating youth looked to their specialists as friends and confidants. During large group sessions, if one person thanked a specialist, the room would erupt in cheers. Caitlin, a senior who was one of the Students of the Year, shared that, “specialists are not just teachers: they are our best friends. They’re always there for you.” In describing the trust she developed with her specialists, she mentioned that they give her time every week to complete work, find missing assignments, or answer questions she hasn’t been able to ask in class. Caitlin feels safe and supported by these caring adults – they give her the time and space to express her needs and the opportunity to have those needs met.
Research shows that “supporting adolescent risk taking and relationship building can increase adolescents’ motivation to learn and even improve their ability to learn.” JMG specialists understand this concept as they form deep relationships with their students. Throughout the day, I overheard specialists ask, “What do you need today? Are you feeling excited?” and then following up immediately with a positive message or suggestion to talk with someone who could help if they voiced a challenge.
For many of the young people I heard from, JMG’s lasting lesson has been about confidence. After a “creative problem solving” event, in which students role-played different work-based scenarios where they encountered a specific challenge and had to develop a solution as a team, I heard several students note that they felt more confident after having several rounds of feedback from adult volunteers. The volunteers encouraged them to think about different kinds of solutions and to consider the voices of stakeholders who would be impacted by the solutions they choose.
During the creative problem solving challenge and the job interview skill sessions, the feedback from many adults was to tell the youth that they shouldn’t hide who they are. Students expressed anxiety that they didn’t know how to answer questions or were afraid that potential employers would not like them. The adult volunteers shared wisdom that employers want to hire young people who know who they are and what skills they bring to a workplace.
Jobs for Michigan’s Graduates’ focus on relationships, confidence building, and employability skill development has paid off. Ninety-eight percent of JMG participants graduate from high school, and 91 percent of them go on to full-time placement in school or work. These positive outcomes lead to an active and engaged alumni network. Lewis Williams, who is actively involved in the alumni network and currently works at DTE Energy - a position that JMG helped place him in, was awarded Alumni of the Year and addressed the entire conference with a reflection on the importance of positive relationships that build skills and confidence: “I almost gave up on myself, but my specialists showed me that I could be exactly who I wanted to be.”