In July 2023, our team published “People-powered pathways: Lessons in how to build students’ social capital through career-connected learning.” In the report, we describe successes and challenges in bringing social capital–building strategies to a variety of educational settings. Our observations draw from an 18-month pilot during which we leveraged our social capital playbook to provide direct support to a group of three intermediary organizations—Education Strategy Group, Generation Schools Network, and Hawai‘i P-20—collectively supporting 20 sites in the K–12 career pathways space. In the course of the pilot, we sought to understand how schools and nonprofits can make social capital-building an explicit, effective, and equitable component of existing career-connected learning models.
In career-connected learning, employee volunteers like internship supervisors or guest speakers typically see their role as providing students job-specific knowledge and skills. However, these individuals have an equally important role to play in students’ networks: fostering students’ well-being and economic mobility by creating lasting relationships that involve sharing resources, connections, and opportunities.
To make this kind of role a reality, employers need to understand the goals of social capital-building, what will be expected of them, and how it can benefit both parties. As one nonprofit leader explained, helping employers take on that role may require upfront reflection, encouraging them to consider pre-conceived notions they may have about young people:
“[If] everybody is committed to working on interrogating all of the thoughts that we as adults have about young people, good and bad, then the effect ends up being social capital. Because you’ve actually taken down the barrier or the silo that says ‘I am this and you are that. I’m here to provide a service and you’re here to get one.’”
For organizations and schools brokering connections to employers, infusing social capital into the purpose behind those connections influenced how they recruited, vetted, and prepared employer partners who would be interacting with students. One nonprofit leader stated,
“We vet our employers that we work with and we have an orientation. They start perhaps from different places and they might not know how [to work with us]. They might have an idea about what an eighth grader is or is not, what ‘risk factors’ youth of color may come with or what their story may be. Part of what is important to us is working with worksite partners so they can see a whole person, an eighth grader who is a complete asset now, and the net value later of working with young people.”
Acknowledging and tackling the “burden of investment”
During our pilot, surveys of site staff revealed that 40% found it somewhat difficult to educate employers about how they can help build students’ social capital. Although nonprofits who were heavily involved in internship or apprenticeships often had the time and expertise to design and conduct orientations for employers, other sites with less capacity were wary of asking too much of their employer partners. In these circumstances, additional training for employers specifically focused on building relationships with students was rarely an option.
While emphasizing return-on-investment (ROI) can help some employers see the long-term benefits of this type of work, one intermediary partner pointed out that for some employers it’s also about avoiding the short-term burden it places on their employees. In addition to ROI, the partner explained,
“There’s also BOI, which is ‘burden of investment.’ Making it easier for [employers] to see that the burden of their investment in this is not that burdensome, and that the experience is enjoyable. [Employees] enjoy the experience of the personal relationship with the kids, and that reduces the burden of investment as well. And it grows our partners’ social capital.”
When working with employers concerned about upfront burden on their employees, one option is to provide a menu that describes different options for getting involved based on employee volunteers’ capacity and interests. This arrangement not only allows employers to understand what is expected of them and their employees, but also allows them to choose the types of experiences that they feel will be enjoyable and meaningful for them. With this mutual understanding, work-based learning can take shape much more easily.
Example in action:
Apprentice Learning is a Boston-based nonprofit organization that provides real-world work experiences for eighth graders. Given that Apprentice Learning’s students were already immersed in work settings as part of their apprenticeships, the Boston site planning team felt that these experiences were a natural fit for building social capital.
While most career-readiness programs ask, “How prepared are young people to build relationships with adults?,” Apprentice Learning equally emphasizes the other side of the equation by asking “How prepared are adults to build relationships with young people?”
During the pilot, Apprentice Learning communicated its vision to employer partners in multiple ways. First, it held an orientation for employers in which Apprentice Learning staff used an asset-based frame to gently challenge employers’ beliefs about what young people can do and what it means to have relationships with them. The goal was to help employers realize that they are building meaningful relationships with human beings who are still learning, yet capable of tremendous success.
Apprentice Learning also communicated with employers via weekly emails. These emails contained guidance for apprenticeship supervisors about how they could best support students, including conversation starters such as “consider talking with your apprentice about your first job,” or “consider sharing about a time when you encountered a struggle in your job and how you navigated it.” As one program leader stated,
“Because of the questions that we put in our weekly letter to our worksite partners, there are more opportunities for them to have conversations about their interests and their trajectory. One of the things that’s resulted in is that at least three, maybe four of our kids have been offered possible summer opportunities. And it is because the worksite partner and the young person took the time to get to know some things about each other a little bit beyond the ‘how to work’ part.”
Finally, Apprentice Learning staff visited each student’s worksite and engaged in one-on-one conversations with their worksite supervisors. These conversations further reinforced the foundation that Apprentice Learning built during the orientations and maintained with the weekly emails. Describing a recent visit to a worksite where two students were apprenticing, a program leader recalled how the conversations they had with employers about building social capital influenced supervisors’ behaviors. When she walked into the worksite, the students’ supervisor immediately offered to provide references for the students if they needed them. “We didn’t have to ask the guy—it was offered. And [the students] understood that their [supervisors] are a resource that they didn’t necessarily know that they had.”
In conclusion, it’s time that employers’ roles in career-connected learning go beyond imparting skills. As decades of research show, it’s skills plus connections that truly move students up the economic distribution ladder.
However, accomplishing this goal requires a shift in perspective and intentionality. What we need are systems that incentivize sharing of social capital. Schools and nonprofits like Apprentice Learning are well positioned to start the conversation with their employer partners. But employers participating in these efforts have a responsibility to allocate resources and create policies that foster more student-centered experiences. While it requires upfront investment, focusing on young people now provides a solid foundation for the society of the future.