Establishing Effective Employer-School Partnerships

Lessons from Employers and Schools in NYC's Original P-TECH Grades 9-14 Schools

By Emma Alterman, Fernando Medina, Leigh Parise

The P-TECH Grades 9-14 model combines accelerated high school coursework, early college, career exploration, and skill building to create a direct pipeline to in-demand careers and strong middle-class wages. P-TECH 9-14 schools partner directly with one or more employers to provide work-based learning (WBL) experiences, including internships, mentoring, and job shadowing, that align with the Career and Technical Education (CTE) pathways the schools offer. These partnerships aim to prepare students for the workforce by training them in technical skills, as well as other skills, such as staying organized and working well with teams, that are essential for professional success on any career path students may ultimately pursue.

Building on the first MDRC report on P-TECH 9-14, interviews with P-TECH 9-14 employers and schools identified four important strategies for forming and maintaining ongoing partnerships:

  • Establish Communication Plans and Formal Agreements
  • Provide Opportunities to Students Equitably
  • Harness Virtual Work-Based Learning Opportunities
  • Maintain Contact with Students Over Time

Below are lessons and considerations for partnerships within each of these strategies.

Establish Clear Goals for the Partnership and Create Plans for Regular Communication

Employers and schools operate very differently, which sometimes makes it difficult to collaborate. School and employer stakeholders should establish clear goals for their partnerships, create plans for engaging in regular communication, and revisit regularly their progress on the goals.

Hold initial meetings and draft written agreements

Establishing clear goals and expectations early can allow the partnership to run smoothly from the beginning.

  • What is defined explicitly in an initial written agreement? What is left more flexible?
  • How many WBL opportunities are possible to offer students? What will they include and when will they happen? For example, how many internships can a company support, what activities will students do during their internships, and when during the schoolyear or summer will they happen?
  • How much, if any, industry-related professional development can be offered for teachers?
  • Will program alumni receive priority in hiring after obtaining a degree? How so?
  • How will the partners collaborate to build a useful and industry-aligned curriculum?
  • How often should expectations be revisited?
  • If there are multiple employer partners, what are the expectations for the ways in which they interact?
Define roles and key contacts at the school and for the employer

It is important to identify staff on both sides who can devote dedicated time to the partnership and to define their roles clearly.

  • Who at the school and the employer will be responsible for managing the partnership?
  • How much of their time will be dedicated to the partnership? Are the specific responsibilities for the employer and school contacts clearly defined? For example, who sets the agendas for meetings?
  • How will the partnership deal with employee turnover at either the school or business?
Set expectations for communication

Relevant decisionmakers on both sides should be expected to discuss new WBL opportunities for students, student performance during internships, and any challenges in implementing the partnership.

  • How frequently should the partners communicate? By what means? What should be communicated?
  • How will information be disseminated to all relevant stakeholders at the school and the employer?
  • How will expectations for student performance during WBL experiences be defined and how will they be communicated to students? How will feedback on student performance be communicated to students and across partners?

Provide Opportunities to Students Equitably

Employer partners typically only have a limited number of available internship positions. Schools and employers often select the highest-achieving students. Because WBL experiences, particularly internships, provide opportunities for students to practice and develop soft skills and build professional networks of support, all students can benefit from them. Partners should seek to find ways to adjust application criteria to be more inclusive of different students.

Make students aware of opportunities

To participate in opportunities, students must first hear about them.

  • How can families be informed of opportunities so that they can relay information to their children and encourage them to apply?
  • How can the schools and employer partners use methods of communication that students and families prefer? Examples include text messages, emails, phone calls, events at school, and parent-facing smartphone applications.
  • Are there ways for schools and partners to send frequent reminders to keep these opportunities front-and-center for students and families when they face competing priorities?
Create buy-in among students

Students (and families) may not pursue opportunities that they do not believe will lead to a high-wage, high-demand career.

  • How can the partners communicate the appeal of the industry and benefits of WBL opportunities to the students and families? What evidence can help convey the message?
  • How might the partners use alumni panels and mentors to provide success stories that are compelling for students and families?
Help students with the application process

A burdensome application process for WBL experiences may be prohibitive for certain students.

  • How can the partners provide supports for students during the application process, such as with building resumes or preparing for interviews?
  • How can the partners reduce burden and complexity in the application process? What parts of the process and can be eliminated or simplified?
Consider the criteria for student selection

Selection requirements will determine what types of students get access to WBL experiences.

  • What application criteria can be used to provide access for more students? Beyond traditional measures, such as grades, can the partners consider teacher recommendations, participation in extracurricular activities, and stated interest in the relevant industry, among other factors?
  • How can WBL experiences serve as an opportunity for less academically accelerated students to acquire new skills and experiences that help them improve in the classroom and beyond?
  • Can schools offer different types of internship opportunities that have less-intensive application processes and requirements?
Prepare students selected for WBL experiences to facilitate their success

The preparation students receive for WBL opportunities has a lot to do with whether the students find the experiences valuable.

  • In order to succeed, what industry-specific skills do students need to know before participating in WBL experiences?
  • What soft skills preparation might students need to navigate the social aspects of work, such as how to write business emails and how to give and receive feedback?
  • How can students’ interests be considered to give students some control over their experience? For example, if a company is accepting interns in multiple departments (such as marketing or IT), they should consider which specific internships might be the best fit for students’ interests.

Harness Virtual Work-Based Learning Opportunities

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced companies and schools to rethink what WBL looks like, opening the door to virtual interactions between companies and students. Companies have discovered significant benefits to virtual engagements with students, making them likely to remain relevant even beyond the pandemic.

Increase capacity for providing virtual WBL experiences

In a virtual setting, staff from various locations can work with students, and local staff can save commute times. Similarly, virtual internships have the potential to provide students with access to opportunities outside of their communities.

  • In a virtual internship, how can companies replicate the more informal communication and relationship building that happens in in-person work environments? Can companies create virtual opportunities for connection, such as welcome lunches and informal meetings with staff who meet their interests?
  • What opportunities might be offered to students to interact virtually with off-site staff or distant offices, such as internships or mentoring? What additional opportunities do virtual settings offer, such as guest speaker events via Zoom or virtual job site tours?
Prepare students for a virtual world of work

As the U.S. workforce continues to shift to remote and hybrid work, students will gain valuable experience in navigating tasks and coworker relationships in a virtual environment.

  • How can companies and schools both prepare staff and students to interact in this new setting? What conversations or training needs to happen in advance of the engagement?
  • What strategies can be employed to ensure high engagement among staff and students in a virtual setting?
  • What is the right balance between virtual and in-person experiences? How can companies ensure that students have support to stay engaged and productive in a hybrid space?

Maintain Connections with Students Over Time

Partnerships benefit from developing strong connections with students during and after their time at P-TECH. Successful school alumni can inspire and motivate current students. From the employer perspective, one benefit of a P-TECH partnership is nurturing potential future employees. To facilitate the development of a talent pipeline, employers and schools can develop strategies for keeping in touch with students and creating program alumni networks.

Start a strong relationship with students during high school by developing alumni networks

There are long-term benefits of maintaining strong alumni network.

  • How can successful examples of past students be used to share the benefits of the program with students and families?
  • What feedback can be collected from alumni about their experiences to inform program improvements, such as coursework or supports?
  • What kind of tailored, industry-specific mentorship can alumni offer?
Strengthen relationships with students during internships and WBL opportunities

Companies should create opportunities for relationship building between students and company staff throughout WBL opportunities. Companies should share student achievements with schools and families to ensure that students feel their work is valued and appreciated.

  • What guidance can be provided to students about the skills and qualifications needed for their future careers?
  • How can achievements of students during WBL engagements be recognized and celebrated?
Continue relationships with students as they enter college and careers

Email lists, newsletters, and invitations to networking events can help students remain connected to the employer partner even after they leave the program.

  • How can students who have participated in WBL be informed of future opportunities to work with the company and create a true bridge from classroom to career?
  • Do schools and employers understand whether the program is having positive outcomes on students, such as postsecondary degree attainment and postgraduation wages? How can continued relationships with alumni help answer these questions?
Alterman, Emma, Fernando Medina, and Leigh Parise. 2022. “Establishing Effective Employer-School Partnerships.” New York: MDRC.