10 strategies for expanding networks—not just skills—to expand career pathways

By: and

Jun 28, 2021

In the American Jobs Plan, the Biden Administration has put a stake in the ground on a bold vision to “ensure workers have ready access to the skills they will need to succeed,” especially those from historically under-resourced communities. The plan includes targeted investments in both existing and “next-generation” education and training programs, as well as career pathway programs in middle and high school.

As well-intentioned as these education and workforce investments may be, the inconvenient truth is that skills and jobs aren’t one and the same. The reality, in fact, is much messier. And more human. Social networks and relationships function as something of an unspoken currency in the world of work. An estimated half of all jobs come through personal connections. And even earlier in the educational pipeline, students’ networks are proven to shape their career ambitions.

For the Administration to realize its commitment to improving outcomes for historically underserved learners and workers, more equitable pipelines to employment will need to be built on both skills and networks. Doing so requires more than the occasional job fair or networking event. Instead, network-building must be woven throughout education and workforce pathways.

Luckily, a host of emerging strategies and tools are making this possible for schools and workforce development programs nationwide. In a new playbook out this week, we highlight promising strategies to build and strengthen students’ networks. Here are 10 tips to making sure your students have both the skills and networks they need to succeed:

Look at the networks your students and community already possess, but may not be activating: Efforts to expand networks can often default to recruiting new “outsiders” from beyond students’ inherited networks—the group of family, friends and community members into which individuals are born and which forms around them. But the first step to finding those new connections is understanding whom students already know but may not be viewing as valuable resources or connections to help them achieve their career goals. For example, a student may view a neighbor as a friend of her parents, but might not know what that neighbor does for a living or see him as a source of advice and inspiration.

Plant seeds of trust early on by surfacing (sometimes hidden) similarities: The notion of homophily, more commonly thought of as “Birds of a feather flock together,” describes the fact that people are more likely to trust others who they perceive to be similar to them. If you’re brokering new connections, ask students and their new connections to share aspects of their lives and identify areas of common interest, experience, or taste (even if those are not obvious at first). This can increase the likelihood that trust is forged.

Cultivate a few strong, targeted ties where students want to land a job: The more strongly two people are connected, the more likely they are to offer help and open doors. If students are far along on their educational journey and have specific goals, high-touch, enduring mentor connections can increase the likelihood of getting hired.

Invest in larger, more diverse weak-tie networks to expand students’ long-term options: Weak ties are relationships that are, well, weaker than close ones. They are characterized by relatively less time, emotional intimacy and reciprocity. But research shows that there is a strength in weak ties; namely that they are more plentiful and more likely to contain new information and opportunities. If students are still exploring career possibilities, then programs should think about ways to multiply the number of connections to people working across an array of industries. This expands students’ access to opportunities and their sense of possible future selves. Come up with clear protocols by which students can “get back in touch” with people they meet, so that those new connections remain accessible after the fact.

Build a culture and infrastructure in which peers can offer career information and advice to one another: Many career-exposure and experience programs rely heavily on staff to train and support students. But students and “near peers,” or individuals close in age and experience that can lend support and advice, can also train and support one another if there is a culture of social support established early on—and if there are tools in place like Slack to promote information sharing.

Structure guest speakers and job shadows as relationship-building opportunities, rather than one-off events: Every time a “new” person comes into contact with your students, frame that exchange to both guests and students as an opportunity for forging connections. Work to ensure that guest speakers hail from a diverse range of backgrounds and experiences that reflect the student population you serve. Try to structure two-way conversations where students can share something about themselves.

Experiment with shorter, smaller-scale work experiences: Many programs are focused on expanding career opportunities through internships. Although internships are a critical onramp to jobs, they are difficult to scale and don’t always yield strong networks. Explore shorter dosage opportunities for career exploration and experience, such as micro-internships (short-term, paid, professional assignments that are similar to those given to new hires or interns), short client projects, and capstone projects as alternative routes to putting professional skills, feedback and connections within reach for students.

Ensure that connections know what your students know: Brokering new networks is a powerful way to expand opportunity, but part of the power of networks is making more people aware of students’ potential, passions, and skill sets. Consider how to ensure that students can show what they know when interacting with new connections, via transcripts or portfolios, and consider capturing this information in your learning management system or CRM tools as well.

Debrief negative relationships to mitigate long-term harm: Relationships may go badly for a whole host of reasons, but you can take steps to ensure a negative relationship does not cause lasting harm to students’ sense of self-worth and ability. Ensure that you have someone in place to help the student process what happened in that negative interaction or relationship. Take advantage of mentoring protocols for how staff can engage in practices that promote healthy “closure” of mentor-mentee relationships.

To ensure equity, measure relationships as outcomes in their own right, and adopt data collection strategies that disaggregate data by subgroups: Schools and institutions that are starting to prioritize students’ networks rarely use a single metric to gauge how students access and experience relationships. Instead, they are capturing data across four interrelated dimensions: quantity, quality, structure and ability to maintain and mobilize relationships. To help ensure equity is infused throughout your efforts, reflect on how students’ identities are honored and integrated into your planning process from the beginning, and pay attention to how different subgroups are accessing and experiencing relationships across these four dimensions.

If all goes according to Biden’s plan, education and workforce organizations will soon see a long-overdue influx of resources. For those investments to truly expand options for learners and workers on the wrong side of opportunity gaps, programs and policymakers must move past the myth that skill-building and career-building are one and the same. You can’t expand opportunities without expanding networks.

This post originally appeared in EdSurge.

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. Her work aims to educate policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres. Be sure to check out her book, "Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students' Networks" https://amzn.to/2RIqwOk.

Mahnaz R. Charania, PhD is a senior research fellow at the Christensen Institute. Her work focuses on studying disruptive innovations in education that amplify equitable opportunities for students to achieve social and economic mobility. In her current role, she leverages her deep expertise in measurement and evaluation to drive innovations that expand students' social capital.