Spotlight on Workforce Readiness in Western Massachusetts

Workforce readiness remains a critical challenge in our state. A recent survey found that 75 percent of employers have trouble finding qualified job applicants. Meanwhile, 30 percent of Massachusetts public school graduates require developmental—or remedial—courses when enrolling the state’s public colleges and universities. These numbers illustrate a clear disconnect between the lessons taught in schools and the skills needed for success in college and in the workforce. This issue needs to be addressed, and schools can’t do it alone.

On May 10, we brought the education and business communities of Western Massachusetts together to talk about how we can better prepare students for the 21st century job market. Education Secretary James Peyser and Senator Eric Lesser joined us to provide a state-level perspective on this issue. The audience also heard from district, school, and business leaders about promising programs to address workforce readiness in Western Massachusetts. The Rennie Center provided a context for the discussion with a research presentation on the findings of our Condition of Education in the Commonwealth report and key data on student progress.

“Students must feel like they own their own path, that they want to show up to school every day and do their work because they understand the relevance to them as individuals,” said Education Secretary James Peyser.

To do this, we must give students more responsibility and choices in when and how they learn, helping students develop critical workforce skills like agency and persistence. As the event’s panelists explained, efforts to tailor education to the needs and learning styles of individual students, known as student-centered learning, are happening in classrooms throughout Western Massachusetts.

The Chestnut TAG Middle School in the Springfield Empowerment Zone, for example, utilizes the Teach-to-One math program, which uses daily evaluations to shape personalized instruction for each student.

“The students have their own personalized playlist and they learn at their pace,” said math teacher Richard Malinoski. “Kids who are behind can get caught up fast because they’re learning what they need to know. Teachers are in the supporting role most of the time and students are responsible for their own learning.”

Meanwhile, Springfield Public Schools recently launched an initiative to provide all students with their own laptop, something educators say has made learning more interactive and differentiated.

“Student engagement has increased dramatically. Students are excited about the curriculum because they have some control over how they are getting information,” said Lisa Bakowski, Principal of the Boland Elementary School.

According to Holyoke Superintendent Steve Zrike, only 20 percent of middle school students surveyed in his city say they are excited about their learning. The district is taking steps to change that through a number of programs, including a personalized pathway program that allows middle school students to move through content areas at their own pace, with an emphasis on goal setting and coaching. The district is also working to improve workforce readiness at the high school level through early college initiatives and job shadowing and internship programs.

“Our kids will be excited, engaged, and better prepared if they feel that the learning is connected to their needs and interests and that there is relevancy to what happens after they leave our school system,” said Zrike.

In Westfield, the business and education communities teamed up to form the Westfield Education 2 Business Alliance. The group holds career fairs for student and teachers.  

“The teachers want to learn about professions, companies, skill sets and how they can adapt their teaching and curriculum to address the skills gap,” said Kate Phelon, Executive Director of the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce.
Seven Western Massachusetts business organizations signed on as event partners including the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts, Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce, Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce, Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, Springfield Business Leaders for Education, and Springfield Regional Chamber. The amount of interest in this discussion from the business community is telling. This issue is critical to the future success of our communities and our state. We hope this is the first of many conversations on how we can work together to prepare students for careers of the future.