U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona addresses the audience at the Unlocking Pathways Summit, which is focused on creating more educational opportunities that lead to jobs the Biden administration expects to open up from recent federal funding programs like the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act at Community College of Aurora on Aug. 10, 2023. (Kevin Mohatt for Colorado Newsline)
Some of Colorado’s top Democrats joined U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona for a summit focusing on alternative pathways to successful careers for students, particularly within the energy sector.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper and U.S. Rep. Jason Crow spoke at the Unlocking Pathways Summit at the Community College of Aurora along with Cardona and Geri Richmond, under secretary for science and innovation in the U.S. Department of Energy.
All talked about the need for a shift in the education system to provide more opportunities for students outside of the four-year college track, and reduce the stigma around pursuing technical careers.
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Cardona said that in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, education does not have to look exactly the same as it did before. The walls between K-12 systems, college systems and workforce systems, he said, need to be broken down, and every student needs to graduate high school with a variety of options available to them.
“We spent three years fighting COVID,” Cardona said. “I want to spend the next three years fighting complacency.”
Cardona emphasized four key ways schools can “unlock” success for every student: personalized, market-informed career counseling; work-based learning; workforce credentials for students; and 12 transferable college credits for every high school graduate through dual enrollment.
“I’m wondering, why do we have to go back to a system where students are facing forward for six hours a day five days a week?” Cardona said. “Let’s take advantage of the disruption of the pandemic to be innovative, give students a day or two of a paid internship or apprenticeship. Building skills and professional relationships — skills that they’re going to need when they graduate. Our young people are ready for that.”
Clean energy jobs
Cardona’s department will start a $25 million grant program for career-connected learning, which will allow school districts to pay for dual enrollment credits, credential trainings and expanded industry learning opportunities.
Hickenlooper said the “dramatic and rapid evolution” toward clean energy will require a new workforce with the skills needed for these jobs, and education systems need to support this too.
“This is going to be a period where we transform not just our country, but the world — and we don’t have the workforce,” Hickenlooper said. “We don’t have the skills necessary to do the work that we know has to be done.”
He also touted Congress’s work on the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Inflation Reduction Act and the CHIPS and Science Act, which he said all include funding for skill-based, experiential learning and apprenticeships.
Cardona said the Office of Career Technical and Adult Education in his department has been modernizing its system with the tools at its disposal, including funding from this federal legislation. He said students want to have meaningful careers where they can make a difference in the world, which he said creates a special opportunity for the clean energy sector.
“A tsunami of new jobs are coming. And not just any jobs — well paying, family sustaining, community building jobs,” Cardona said. “Careers that will drive our competitiveness as a country for years to come. But without bold and intentional collaboration, this wave of opportunity can pass our students by.”
Richmond echoed that sentiment, citing a survey that showed millennials and Gen Z want to work for companies that share their values. She said the renewable energy industry is the place to do that.
“We are racing to save the planet, and we need a workforce to save the planet,” Richmond said.
We are racing to save the planet, and we need a workforce to save the planet.
– Geri Richmond, under secretary for science and innovation in the U.S. Department of Energy
Crow said student debt also creates a barrier for people who might want to pursue a new career, as they can’t afford to go back to school because of how much they are paying for their loans.
“Other pathways become inaccessible to them,” Crow said. “Even if they want to become a teacher or a nurse or firefighter, they can’t. They can’t afford it.”
He also said the average young person who is in high school now will have four or five different, unique careers throughout their lifetime.
Polis said Colorado is in a unique position during the shift to clean and renewable energy because of its experience with legacy energy sectors including oil and gas extraction. He also touted the Career Advance Colorado program, which allows students who want to go into high-demand industries to attend a community college at no cost.
“There is still a mismatch of skills between those who are unemployed and seeking work and all the great jobs that are out there,” Polis said.
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