Pearson's Innovative Approach to Education and Career Readiness

An interview with Casey Welch, VP of Career at Pearson

Q: How does Pearson's educational approach empower students for future success?

Within Pearson, we have the familiar higher education sector, but we also have a K-12 division called Connections Academy. We manage around 40 schools across 29+ states, serving approximately 100,000 students and their families on a full-time basis, from kindergarten through twelfth grade. These are online statewide public schools, fully virtual, designed to cater to diverse learners. The learners at these schools have unique circumstances, such as non-traditional schedules or experiences being bullied in other schools. 

Our mission is to support thousands of students and families by providing an economically obtainable educational foundation while equipping them with the connections needed to build the futures they want. 

We ultimately envision creating an end-to-end ecosystem for learners that utilizes Pearson's extensive assets, spanning from Connections Academy to higher education, workforce solutions, language learning, and more. 

Our goal is to align education with the demands of the job market by leveraging Pearson's entire ecosystem to connect students with diverse opportunities and our portfolio of businesses. This means collaborating with two-year and four-year colleges, employers, and student organizations to create a seamless experience. 

Q: What is the long-term vision for Connections Academy?

When we think about why people pursue education, it often revolves around the promise of a better life. For most of us, our careers are the vehicles that lead to that better life. That’s why our goal is to place our learners in the best possible situation and prepare them for their future careers.

Traditionally, a four-year college was considered as the only path. That's a great option for some. However, we recognize that there are multiple pathways to success, including two-year colleges, certificate programs, and even the military. Our mission is to bring attention to these opportunities and provide support in various ways.

One unique program we're launching this fall is a tri-credit opportunity. For example, in the IT career pathway, our students are already taking IT-related courses. What if they could earn high school credits, two-year college credits, and even industry credentials for taking these same courses? By graduating from our high schools, they would be well-prepared for a wide range of career paths.

Another initiative we’re working on involves industry-driven education. We're collaborating with major employers to understand their specific skill requirements and priorities. This way, we're not just focusing on higher education but working closely with industries to ensure our future workforce is equipped with the skills and abilities that are important to them. It's about aligning education with the real needs of the job market.

Q: Can you share about your partnership with Home Depot and the Path to Pro program?

Our partnership with Home Depot and their Path to Pro program is an exciting step towards offering students a broader perspective on career options.

Home Depot's Path to Pro program is designed to raise awareness among students about the various trades they can pursue. It's about giving them a chance to explore these fields, understand what they entail, and see what they find interesting. If they find that a particular trade isn't the right fit, it's just as valuable because we're not wasting their time or the employer's time. We can then help get them into another field and a different opportunity.

This program introduces students to fields such as construction and painting, where they can start working right away and earn a good living. If they want to take the next step, they can pursue certificates or licenses, perhaps at a community college, in areas such as HVAC. Or, they may choose to pursue a degree in building construction management at a university (ex. Purdue). All of these pathways come out of the trades.

What's also particularly exciting is that there are unique opportunities emerging at the intersection of entrepreneurship and the trades. Students can build successful careers in trades like plumbing, welding, or becoming technicians while also running their businesses.

When we talk about AI in education, it's important to note that certain industries, including the trades, are unlikely to be replaced by AI anytime soon. Fixing roads and pipes, for example, remains a hands-on job that requires human expertise.

Q: What are your thoughts on micro-credentialing, and how are you incorporating it into your learning programs?

We're in a skills-based hiring society, and micro-credentialing is not a trend that's fading away. Regardless of one's stance on it, micro-credentialing opens up numerous opportunities for students, adults, and individuals in transition, which is a key focus for us.

We've leveraged Coursera to offer certificates and certifications. Additionally, we've partnered with Credly, a Pearson-owned entity, known for administering 74 million digital credentials a year. Credly works closely with major players in the micro-credentialing and industry credentialing space. All these efforts contribute to building a learner profile.

The goal is to extract the skills and abilities that individuals gain from these credentials and make people aware of the career paths these align with. Micro-credentialing is here to stay, and employers are increasingly valuing it as another benchmark in their hiring processes.

At Connections Academy, our students earn these credentials, specifically those that align with skills recognized by industry leaders. While a vast array of credentials is available, we take a strategic approach by focusing on those already aligned with significant employers and industry-leading associations. We understand that our learners have limited time, so we want to make sure they get the most value from what they're doing.

Q: What career advice do you have for students trying to figure out what to do next?

After spending a lot of time in the field, especially focusing on Gen Z, it's clear that they approach their careers differently than previous generations. They're thinking about their careers much earlier because the workforce is closer to them than it was for us.

Traditionally, the path was to go to college and then figure out what you want to do. Now, students have credentials, certificates, and alternative pathways. Many employers have lifted the four-year college degree requirement, opening up more opportunities.

The key question becomes: How do you know what you want to do? It's not just about what skills you have and aligning them to a career. It's about discovering careers where you can find purpose and meaning. It's about creating a life you want to live in an environment that suits your lifestyle and supports your financial needs.

Getting them in those pathways becomes a game of exposure and awareness. 80% of people change their college major at least once. The average person has five to seven careers in their lifetime. Connections Academy focuses on providing experiences, such as internships, apprenticeships, mentorships, and partnerships that often lead to relationships and connections that can shape one's career trajectory.

Ultimately, while education is foundational, experiences are often the differentiator in the workforce. Our virtual setting allows us to deliver engaging experiences at scale, leveling the playing field for students, whether they're in rural Iowa or New York City.

Q: How is Connections Academy currently assisting students and addressing the challenges of career readiness?

We're taking a thoughtful approach to ensure that what we're developing for virtual students can also benefit students in brick-and-mortar schools in the future.

We asked students across the country, reaching both brick-and-mortar and virtual students, to identify the most significant challenges they were facing when it came to their careers. The top three challenges were not surprising but still very critical to address.

First, students highlighted the challenge of making connections. HubSpot says 85% of jobs are filled through a network, and CNBC says 70% of jobs are never posted. So, no matter how well-educated you are, without connections, opportunities can be limited.

The second major barrier was cost, particularly the expenses associated with college and other career opportunities.

Third, confidence emerged as a significant issue. Many students felt they lacked the necessary skills and didn't even know what skills were important to employers. This lack of confidence held them back in their careers.

As we take our programs to the next level, our goal is not only to assist our students but also to extend our support to learners across the board. We believe that everyone can benefit from a broader network and increased opportunities.

We're approaching this challenge in three ways. Firstly, we aim to help learners explore and find what truly excites them. This generation wants a meaningful and fulfilling career that also has an impact. How do we make them the entrepreneurs of their own lives?

Secondly, we’re focusing on helping them develop the skills and experiences required in today's skills-based hiring environment. Employers are looking for essential skills, and we want to make sure our learners acquire these 21st-century durable skills.

Lastly, we place a strong emphasis on building connections that matter. We teach them how to develop meaningful relationships, especially when navigating high school, college, and early career stages. We remember how daunting it was and don't think it has gotten any easier.

These three foundational pillars are at the core of our mission, leveraging our 20 years of experience at Connections Academy. The pillars will not only help our students but also positively impact other schools and provide additional ways for us to expand in the future.

Q: How does confidence impact students' readiness for their future careers and mental well-being?

Confidence is crucial, and it's interesting that it's come up so prominently in our findings. The reality is that this generation’s confidence level is at an all time low despite having numerous job opportunities and diverse skill sets. 

Factors including social media and other challenges contribute to this lack of confidence. We want to provide an environment where we can help young people build that confidence so that they feel ready and not let low confidence stand in the way of their future.

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