Real life work experience program launches California students into careers

150 150 Bill Britt

(Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech) Aerojet Rocketdyne will build landing system thrusters for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover.

Aerojet Rocketdyne recently set a new record at its sprawling plant in Sacramento and it had nothing to do with production output or government contracts. The leader in aerospace and defense systems hired its very first high school intern. It didn’t make headlines but it’s a worthy footnote in California’s efforts to close the job skills gap.

That intern, Gaby Vargas from Sacramento’s School of Engineering and Sciences, said the experience not only fueled her interest in a specific career, but she suspects her classmates would follow her trajectory, if given a shot at the opportunities usually reserved for college students.

The payoff: her four-month internship at Aerojet provided a front row view of “what you’d actually do if you were given a job there.” She also discovered a workplace attitude that makes her want to go back. “You might not always make big money, but if you’re a great engineer you’re always going to enjoy what you’re doing.”

Vargas is one of the youngest beneficiaries of LaunchPath, a relatively new program that’s bringing high schoolers into the fold with community college students who are already in the program gaining real life work experiences before they graduate.

Getting a leg up on the competition to land jobs isn’t rocket science. It’s a straightforward strategy that’s getting a big boost from the Foundation for California Community Colleges.

“Hands-on experience is really the lynchpin for a lot of students,” said Nancy Pryor, external affairs manager for the Foundation. “It can really give them an edge. The idea is to make sure we’re producing trained graduates with real work experience ready to jump into the workforce. We’ve kind of gone after it from a strategic approach based on industries, but we’re willing to take on any employer that offers an interest in students.”

Tim Aldinger, the Foundation’s director of Workforce Development Services and a primary architect of LaunchPath, coordinates the program’s efforts.

“When I came onboard a year and a half ago the timing was perfect,” said Aldinger. “The Vice Chancellor was picking up the momentum for Doing What Matters for Jobs and Economy, which happens to be an initiative to help make sure employers have the workforce needed for growth, and to make sure community colleges can respond to them.”

That effort coincided with the Task Force on Workforce, Job Creation, and a Strong Economy, commissioned in 2014 by the community college system’s Board of Governors to identify ways colleges can provide workers with skills and credentials that match employer needs. Aldinger said one of the biggest obstacles was the logistics of putting students on company payrolls, due to employers’ concerns about liability.

The solution: “One of our long-standing services, Career Catalyst, [offers us as] the employer of record,” said Aldinger. “For example, Gaby was a Foundation employee on paper but she did her work at Aerojet. This way, we help them stay in line with their restrictions and policies.”

It’s that simple change that lead to the creation of LaunchPath two years ago, with an initial investment by JP Morgan Chase. Its international initiative, New Skills at Work, is designed to support programs that address the skills gap.

Now, LaunchPath is working a new and unprecedented element into the mix. It’s called “digital badging.” It means if Gaby’s supervisor at Aerojet gives her a positive assessment, she’ll receive a validated, internship completion badge “backed and validated by credible, recognizable entities,” something certainly worth posting on a LinkedIn page. Aldinger admitted, “This is still a relatively new idea, but it’s something we think could have legs.”

LaunchPath is already taking big strides beyond Sacramento to the Bay Area, Oxnard and beyond. Los Angeles Valley College and Los Angeles Trade Technical College have become grantees as well. And just to be clear, LaunchPath’s leaders aren’t showing up to show off and take over.

“We have to be able to tap into that local expertise,” said Aldinger. “We can’t just come in and plop down digital platforms. There are existing programs and resources that know the area well and we can help them. It’s that marriage that makes this possible.”


Bill Britt

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