Linking High School Curriculum to Workforce Needs

Linking High School Curriculum to Workforce Needs

Hutchinson’s TigerPath program stands out among Minnesota schools.

Minnesota’s current and growing labor shortage has been the subject of numerous reports and regionwide initiatives. A recent Minnesota Compass report showed little or no expected change in the working-age population (18 to 64) across the state between now and 2030. For growing businesses that need more workers, competition for talent will intensify.

Further, our state will need to prepare Minnesota youth to become part of the state’s future workforce. Our education systems and pathways to employment need to function at a high level, connect to future jobs and become more successful across all socio-economic, geographic and demographic cohorts.

In response to what it describes as an acute shortage of workers in the region, the Southwest Initiative Foundation, based in Hutchinson, has created the Grow Our Own program. Noting that more than one in six children in southwest Minnesota lives in poverty, the foundation wants to intervene in the region’s educational and child development sectors to ensure that all children are prepared to succeed in the workforce.

In February, several hundred children’s advocates, service providers and policymakers gathered for the Children and Youth Issues Briefing, the state’s major annual youth policy forum. They heard about components of the Hutchinson-area effort that take a cradle-to-career approach to the area’s youth. Among these is a seemingly radical approach to high school called TigerPath Academies. (Hutchinson’s school nickname is the Tigers.)

TigerPath merges traditional high school education with hands-on experiences tied to workforce opportunities in the region. In collaboration with area employers, the Chamber of Commerce and Hutchinson’s Economic Development Authority, Hutchinson High School encourages every student to enroll in courses that offer skill development.

Each student has an individualized “TigerPath” that maps high school coursework to completion of a diploma. Subject areas are clustered into TigerPath “Career Academies” to offer students well-rounded exposure to components of future jobs. There are four academies: STREAM (Science, Technology, Writing, Engineering, Arts and Math), Sci HI (emphasis on science, with courses such as anatomy), Human Services, and Business.

Within the Human Services academy is the Triple H, or Hutchinson High Honors, offering, which is a four-year liberal arts preparatory pathway.

Working with area employers, students also participate in site visits, on-location training, mentorship and exposure to work opportunities in their community. With about 950 students enrolled in the high school, coordinating the program’s activities is a mission for Patrick Walsh, the high school’s principal.

“When I got to Hutchinson, the chamber, local business, our schools, post-secondary institutions, nonprofits, state government—we were all looking to solve the same workforce issues, but we didn’t know it,” Walsh says. “Schools have to be relevant to the local community in order for people to pay any attention to us. Through our career pathways program, the whole community is engaged.”

“Only 30 percent of our kids are going to need a college degree to succeed in the jobs we have available,” Walsh continues. “How are we going to be sure that kids are exposed to and learn the skills needed for the jobs that will exist? That’s what we are working on every day, and the whole community is involved.”

Tom Mayer, a 3M engineering technology manager, says, “3M has found [the TigerPath] approach to be effective in providing students with career awareness in areas such as advanced manufacturing, and provided an opportunity for 3M to begin developing our future workforce.” He adds: “Formal education alone does not always develop the skills necessary for today’s skills-based economy.”

Why was there a focus on Hutchinson at the statewide forum on children and youth? “We wanted to showcase an innovative education leader who is helping students engage early in career pathways programming that leads to immediate employment opportunities with local businesses,” says consultant Frank Forsberg, who helped organize the event.

“We prepare students for all professions,” Walsh says. “Students are only 13 to 14 years old when they make their initial TigerPath choice.”

Several early skills courses—including woodworking, drafting, first aid and welding—have had more than 100 student enrollments during a calendar year. “This allows for a large cohort of students who can travel deeply into a skills area,” Walsh says.

It’s important to think about how metro schools can benefit from similar innovation and partnerships involving schools, nonprofits and businesses.

And for this high school graduate, I wish I could have taken some of the skill-building courses offered along the TigerPath. It could have made high school both more interesting and more useful. Drafting I, anyone? You’d be joining a full class of students in Hutchinson.

Sarah Lutman is a St. Paul-based independent consultant and writer for clients in the cultural, media and philanthropic sectors.