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Three years ago, Maija Thiel was asked to set up a new apprenticeship program for Puyallup School District’s high-school students. The idea: link more students to apprenticeships, and eventually, to jobs.

Thiel oversees career and technical education (CTE) for the district near Tacoma. Her new project, which involved allowing students to leave school to work, raised complications. How do you persuade companies to hire student apprentices part time? Will students still get the credits they need? What about transporting students to job sites, and allowing them time for sports or other activities?

And then came bigger concerns: how do you create equitable programs, and avoid “tracking” only certain student groups into skilled labor?

“Do we have perfect solutions yet? No. But we’re working on it,” Thiel said.

School districts across the state are now asking similarly complicated questions as the state’s new public-private initiative, called Career Connect Washington, goes into full swing. The program, launched in March, is intended to give high-school students and young adults real-world skills through a wealth of career programs akin to the one in Puyallup. Student apprentices make money: at least minimum wage, and in some cases, more. By the class of 2030, state officials say they hope 60% of graduates will take advantage of career programs.

This inaugural year, Career Connect Washington awarded more than $2.1 million to 10 grantees. Each is expected to kick-start a new career program or expand an existing one within a year, said Maud Daudon, who is leading the Career Connect Washington effort and is the former president of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. The grants fund programs related to the aerospace, automotive, agriculture, health care, construction and manufacturing industries, among others.

Labor groups and companies are chipping in, too. In Seattle, for instance, Kaiser Permanente and Seattle Central College launched a new medical-assistant apprenticeship for adults this fall. Kaiser has spent more than $1 million to help cover training costs, said Jiquanda Nelson, senior manager of equity, inclusion, diversity and workforce development at Kaiser.

Career education has ebbed and flowed in popularity since at least World War I, experts say, but it is again having a moment here. In addition to new funding, tweaks to the state’s high-school-graduation requirements this year give students leeway to earn a diploma through a career-education pathway.

It also comes amid a broader push to expand career education. In 2018, the federal government reauthorized a $1.2 billion vocational-education law called the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act — the primary source of federal funding for career programs. States have since approved more than 140 policies related to career education, according to the Association for Career & Technical Education.

“Right now it’s one of those topics that everybody agrees with,” said Eric Hanushek, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. But critics have long said that vocational-education programs “track” certain students into skilled labor positions, such as students of color or those from low-income homes, while discouraging them from courses that prepare them for college. Certain skills may become outdated as technology advances or the economy shifts.

Hanushek, who studies the economics of vocational-education programs, said he’s skeptical that new iterations of such programs will solve these problems. According to research from Hanushek and his colleagues, even gold-standard options, such as one in Switzerland that Washington has modeled its program on, have struggled to adapt as certain job skills have become obsolete.

“It’s a bad idea, because what we know is the skills they learn today probably aren’t going to be demanded so much 10 years from now,” he said.

So how does Washington intend to avoid these legacies?

For one, the state plans to keep close tabs on who participates in career programs, and what they do afterward, Daudon said.

The state already has some data from a pilot phase, she added: these education programs attracted many students classified as academically gifted.

“We don’t want it to just be for them either,” she said, noting that the state hopes participants “match the demographics of the community.”

Thiel, for example, is trying to figure out how to break down barriers within Puyallup’s program, which is now in its second year. The program offers manufacturing apprenticeships, and has primarily attracted boys: just two of 17 participants are girls.

Making these programs equitable by gender and within racial and ethnic groups is “not an instant, overnight type of thing,” she said.

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Unlike programs of the past, Daudon said, the new efforts are “bringing the employers closer in to make sure these experiences are truly relevant to today’s economy.”

This is happening through close partnerships between employers and school districts or colleges. Schools and colleges make sure the career-education programs are academically rigorous, Daudon said; meanwhile, Daudon said, employers and labor groups are responsible for on-the-job training and workplace safety. Career Connect Washington is charged with overseeing all of these efforts — a massive undertaking — and ensuring that existing career programs are high-quality.

“There are a lot of things that you have to have lined up,” she said. “Both industry things and academic to make sure it meets the bar.”

As these programs grow, experts envision practical challenges, such as keeping minors safe in dangerous manufacturing companies or other potentially dangerous workplaces.

Transporting students to job sites can also be tricky, said Shannon Matson, deputy director at Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee, which serves as a matchmaker between employers and adult and youth apprentices. Not all apprentices drive, and some workplaces are far from public transportation, she said.

“It is certainly an issue we deal with in every community,” she said. “But I don’t think it’s insurmountable.”

Students can’t count on the state or employers to cover all costs. For instance, certain career programs help students qualify for college credit. But while the state paid about $1.6 million this year to ease these costs for low-income students, Daudon said, officials haven’t nailed down a long-term funding strategy.

“There are some barriers and we’re going to have to address them,” she said.

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