A tight-knit community upending underemployment

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Jun 13, 2019

Students need relationships to get by and to get ahead. But all too often in our education system, relationships are treated as inputs to learning, rather than outcomes in their own right. We’re offering in-depth profiles of programs that are flipping that script and deliberately designing models to deepen and diversify students’ networks. This is the second piece in our Who You Know in Action blog series. Read the first piece here.

A few weeks ago the New York Times highlighted just how demoralizing it can be to look for a job. The piece sheds light on the less-talked-about social, emotional, and psychological components of job searching, rather than just the technical know-how. And yet in typical conversations in the education sector about career readiness, the technical aspects of getting a job often overshadow the social ones.

One clear exception to this, however, is the New York and Bay Area-based nonprofit COOP’s approach to help underemployed low-income, first-generation college graduates break into tech jobs. Although COOP’s flagship 200-hour program includes 100 hours of hard skills training in data analytics or digital marketing, the program is less focused on the skills gap as the primary lever to support students into their careers. Instead, it focuses intently on building students’ social capital. Founder and CEO Kalani Leifer balks at being likened to a typical bootcamp or training program. “We tackle isolation,” he said.

The isolation, that is, of being a degree holder with few job prospects and few inherited connections into the knowledge economy. To counteract the sense that graduates were going it alone, COOP built its model around a cohort-based, peer-led theory of change. Specifically, this meant designing an experience whereby students complete the program with a more robust network of peers, near-peer COOP alums, and industry professionals than when they entered. Students also tend to remain a part of that community even after the program is complete.

COOP’s flagship program is a Digital Apprenticeship, during which peer cohorts meet nightly for 16 weeks (200 hours) to learn technical skills, build community, and jumpstart careers, particularly in digital marketing and data analytics. COOP Alumni serve as near-peer coaches, or Captains, for these cohorts and more broadly supply connections into industry.

Feeling a sense of belonging… and reciprocity

Despite the range of talented program staff and dedicated near-peer Captains supporting COOP cohorts, for Leifer, peers are the crucial hook into the program. “The primary value upfront for new COOPers is their 15 peers,” Leifer said. “The cohort solves for loneliness and disconnection among graduates who didn’t live in dorms, had jobs, and had other family obligations.” These cohorts spend the entirety of their 200 hours, over the four-month program, together. The message that students receive upon joining their cohort is not just that these peers can become friends, but that they are a critical asset to making the experience fruitful. “You create value by showing up for each other, by being there,” Leifer tells new COOPers. In other words, students persist through the demands of the four-month evening program not just in service of themselves but also in service of their peer cohort.

The program also emphasizes the fact that while fellow peers may start off trying to break into the job market, in the longer term they will function as key connections in graduates’ professional and social networks. As Leifer frames it at the start of the program, “”Look around at your peers. You’re not going to love everyone here, but let’s say you build 10 really solid relationships. One of those 10 people will be the reason you get your first $50,000 job. But you don’t know which one. By my math, that means each of those relationships is worth $5,000 to you. Now, that sounds like a terrible way to talk about a friend. But it’s not wrong. And yet we rarely invest in our peer relationships as if the stakes were that high. The stakes are exactly that high.”

Nurturing soft skills in the context of authentic relationships

Emphasizing economic value, however, does not mean bonds are premised on transactions or quid pro quo attitudes. Instead, COOP places a strong emphasis on developing deep, meaningful connections both within and beyond cohorts over the course of the four-month program. Students also get to know other peers in their same geography participating in other cohorts through group training and social events. This amounts to approximately 20 of the 200 total hours. Cohorts and whole-group time, in turn, become the bedrock on which COOP teaches authentic networking. Rather than simulating the sort of transactional networking that can make for high octane networking events or teaching ‘soft skills’ through worksheets or lectures, the setting lends itself to developing skills in the context of relationships. By the time they engage in an actual networking unit and activity with industry professionals working in tech jobs, COOPers have already begun to build real relationships and gained a sense of one another’s strengths. The COOP curriculum leverages this organic experience to emphasize the importance of both establishing a sense of personal brand, and developing authentic connections as the foundation of a strong professional network.

Expanding opportunity through community

Although accessing industry connections is crucial to many successful job placements, COOP’s model leans heavily towards building a community and investing in that community’s success in industry over the long term, rather than brokering connections beyond that community in the short term. That’s not to say COOPers don’t interact with hiring managers, industry experts, or in some cases industry clients in the course of the curriculum. But in Leifer’s words, “Industry is a small part of what makes COOP work.” Instead, it’s COOP’s community—in particular their growing alumni network—that is driving the model’s successful social capital flywheel. “They [alumni] infiltrate employers and take advantage of network effects.”

This didn’t happen overnight. “For the first cohort of COOP, we did the placements and tended the garden of networks,” Leifer said. Since then, however, the COOP alumni network has powered COOP’s training and placement efforts. COOP alumni serve as the “fuel” of the program, playing a range of both formal and informal roles in the model. “The only reason we’re combining incredibly high touch support with lower costs is that alumni do everything for each other,” Leifer said. Although many alums do this to pay it forward, COOP also strives to continue to create value for its alums. Alums stand to benefit from referral bonuses for bringing fellow COOPers into their companies, managerial training by serving as Captains within the COOP program, or simply having access to socializing and free drinks at COOP community events.

In an era of mounting rates of loneliness, segregated professional networks, and a technology sector still struggling to diversify pipelines, the COOP community offers an entirely new tack to paving the way for young people all too often shut out of the opportunity equation. Among the programs we’ve studied, this model truly sets COOP apart. Rather than telling students that they need to know people who are not like them (what sociologists often refer to as ‘bridging social capital’), COOP has managed to build a tight-knit cohort of individuals raising one another up in the technology sector. Its graduates are finding high-quality jobs and forming a network of peers that long outlasts the program itself.

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 new book, "Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students' Networks" https://amzn.to/2RIqwOk.