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You Need to Invite Industry Partners to More Than Just Career Fairs

It's awesome to invite industry partners to career fairs for your CTE students. It's important to invite them to much more.

Theresa Rex
Theresa Rex

Aug 17, 2021

In theory, the ability to effectively engage employers, experts, and industry leaders in career and technical education at the secondary level is what takes a CTE program from good to great.

In practice, it's another story.

Conflicting schedules, limited resources, and a lack of proven strategies for engagement can make it challenging to foster the kinds of involvement that innovate and add value to CTE programming and for local professionals. So is ensuring that engagement expands beyond an annual career fair in the gymnasium. Challenging, but not impossible.

We have nothing against the annual career fair, of course. Career, internship, and opportunity fairs check a lot of boxes for students and industry partners, which is why scheduling them is such a safe bet.  Adding new ways to engage industry partners and local subject matter experts can feel like a roll of the dice by comparison, especially when you need to protect your own time and respect your industry partners' schedules and resources, too.

How to get industry partners involved with CTE initiatives beyond the career fair

Seek Out Your Local Chamber of Commerce

If you're still developing your CTE strategy and filling up your district's Rolodex of community subject matter experts and business leaders to partner with, the best place you can start is with your community's chamber of commerce.

Your chamber of commerce can:

  • Connect you to business leaders inside the school community
  • Provide access to professional networks that include neighboring municipalities
  • Introduce you to industry professionals actively looking to make a difference in the community
  • Provide insight into local hiring and education trends
  • Pair fledgling CTE programs with willing business advisors

That's just the beginning. School communities and business entities have a shared purpose — investing in and improving the quality of life in the community — approached from a diverse set of perspectives. And that's not all they have in common.

For example, consider the San Marcos School District and the San Marcos Chamber of Commerce in Texas. Representatives from each gave a joint presentation at the 2021 CTAT Summer Conference:  A Practical & Scalable Framework for Building a District-to-Community Talent Pipeline

Here is the mission statement of SMISD's CTE department:

"San Marcos CISD, in partnership with parents and the community, will provide a quality education to all students, empowering them to pursue productive and fulfilling lives.

And here is the San Marcos Area Chamber of Commerce's mission statement

"To improve the economic prosperity and quality of life of our members through leadership, education and business advocacy."

It's easy to see why this partnership works. These goals inform and support one another. That's likely to be true of your own chamber and CTE department, and when you pick up the phone, you will almost assuredly find an enthusiastic answer on the other end.

Leverage Your Business Advisory Committee

It would be impossible to overstate the importance of industry partners to career and technical education, and we don't mean as a high-minded ideal, either. It's foundational to the entire concept of CTE, and thanks to Perkins V, it's a mandate.

To continue to be eligible for federal funding, CTE directors need to create and seek the input of advisory panels and business advisory councils (BACs) to plan, develop, implement, and evaluate CTE programs. Those committees require the direct involvement of industry partners. They are also the perfect place to start.

The business leaders on your BAC are in their field because they're passionate about the work that they do. They're at your meetings because they want to be involved in preparing the next generation of passionate business leaders. They are an essential bridge between pedagogy and practice for your students, and they were once in your students' shoes. That makes them uniquely equipped to not only help steer you in the right direction when it comes to curriculum planning and smart equipment investments but help you to see your current CTE programming through your students' eyes.

Explore Commonalities Between District and Industry Partner Goals

Once you have the community connections you and your students need, it's time to nurture them into solid and lasting relationships. A great place to start is by exploring what you have in common, and how you can meet one another's goals

When we ask the industry partners that work with SchooLinks' districts why they chose to get involved with the local school community's CTE program, we primarily see three answers. Can you guess which is the most common?

  1. CTE provides an opportunity to increase brand awareness of my business in the community
  2. I just want to help!
  3. I can find student talent quickly through partner CTE programs when I need to fill roles at my company

It's #2. We made that pretty easy, didn't we? This illustrates that right off the bat, you're both heavily focused on the students in your program, putting you squarely on the same page.

Industry partners with the first goal might be all too happy to:

  • Host and participate in events on campus or at their business
  • Act as a program sponsor
  • Provide access to or assist with acquiring program equipment
  • Establish a postsecondary scholarship for CTE students to pursue further training and education

The second group of industry partners, on the other hand, might gravitate toward:

  • Guest speaking in a CTE classroom or lab
  • Co-teaching a class, unit, or certification preparation course
  • Providing instruction or mentorship for a short-term, industry-based project
  • Acting as a judge at a Career and Technical Student Organization (CTSO) competition or fair
  • Providing valuable insight and recommendations for curriculum and equipment improvements as a program advisor
  • Providing externships or professional development for educators

And industry partners with the third goal might be more interested in:

  • Providing students with field experience like job shadowing and mock interviews
  • Bringing students onsite for work-based learning opportunities as paid interns, seasonal employees, and volunteers
  • Participating in opportunity fairs, hackathons, and community service initiatives that align with CTE programming

Provide Opportunities for Synchronous and Asynchronous Involvement

Remote participation from industry partners and students isn't likely to go anywhere even after — or rather, if — schools return to full-time instruction.

In yet another example of a way that the conversation in the broader workforce is being reflected in career exploration programs and CTE classrooms, now that industry partners and students have had flexibility in the way that they engage with one another and CTE itself, they won't be keen to give that up.

And why should they?

Providing the opportunity for students and industry partners to connect in as wide a variety of ways (virtually, for instance) as possible and as their respective schedules allow serves two purposes.

First, it keeps those connections from feeling like a chore for students or tasks to check off an endless to-do list for their mentors. It's something they seek out on their own. Second, it facilitates ownership of the connection from both sides. Asynchronous participation removes a major roadblock to engagement for industry partners: scheduling spaghetti. For students, asynchronous industry partner involvement means access to those industry partners and their expertise that's evergreen, allowing you to seed — and then scale — a professional ecosystem of expertise and support that will only grow and strengthen as you continue to build upon it.

Imagine the turnout at your next career fair once you do.

Modern CTE has a crucial role to play in preparing the next generation for the modern workforce, no matter what their postsecondary plans may be. This reimagining of career exploration and training requires a modern platform that brings every stakeholder to the table. See how our districts have reimagined CTE for their students while connecting them to real-world career discovery through SchooLinks' unique industry partner portal and asynchronous mentoring activities when you book a personalized demo.

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Theresa Rex

Theresa Rex is the content marketing manager at SchooLinks. She is a first-generation college grad and an absolute nerd for equity and em dashes.

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