4.1 Ken Smith, Jobs for America's Graduates

Episode Summary

Ken Smith founded JAG (Jobs for America’s Graduates) 40 years ago in Delaware to help struggling high school students get some work experience while they were in school. Since then, JAG has grown to serve 1.5 million students in 40 States with an overall graduation rate above 90%. That is particularly impressive since JAG tries to target the most vulnerable students who are the least likely to graduate. This podcast recounts that JAG story from its origins. It highlights some of the operational structure in working with the States and reviews its important accomplishments and why they occur with these students. Does this story sound familiar? If so maybe it is from knowing the motivating impact on students of internships and cooperative education in colleges and universities. JAG may be primarily in high school, but it's lessons are for higher education as well.

Episode Notes

Topics discussed in this episode include:

Music Credits: C’est La Vie by Derek Clegg

Episode Transcription

ExperiencED Season 4, Episode 1

Jim Stellar: [00:00:00] Welcome to the ExperiencED podcast. I am Jim Stellar. 

[00:00:12] Mary Churchill: [00:00:12] I am Mary Churchill 

[00:00:13] Adrienne Dooley: [00:00:13] and I am Adrienne Dooley. 

[00:00:15] Jim Stellar: [00:00:15] We bring you to this podcast on experiential education 

[00:00:18] Mary Churchill: [00:00:18] with educators and thought leaders 

[00:00:20] Adrienne Dooley: [00:00:20] from around the country and the world. 

[00:00:23] Jim Stellar: [00:00:23] Ken Smith is the chairman and chief executive officer of strategic partnerships, LLC, a Washington DC based consultant group that serves fortune 1000 companies, large non-profits and higher education.

[00:00:36] However, we are interviewing him here for another reason, In 1980 Ken founded Jobs for America's Graduates or sometimes known as JAG.  JAG develops internships in local industry, largely for high school students. This founding was influenced by his substantial federal government prior experience that included being a staff aide to Richard Nixon and being chairman of the National Commission for Employment Policy in Ronald Reagan's administration, et cetera, that experience allowed him to forge an alliance with state governors who then helped JAG broker the needed internships in local industry for high schools.

[00:01:14] JAG is the oldest national organization helping youth, particularly those at risk make the transition  from school to career. It currently operates in 40 States and has served well over a million students in middle schools, high schools, community colleges, and community-based organizations throughout the United States and in the United Kingdom.

[00:01:34] The JAG model of exposing students to the world of work has been highly successful markedly enhancing graduation rates in high school and leading to a 75% placement in full-time jobs after graduation. JAG has earned praise from education industry and governments alike. In this podcast, we see JAG as an example of the power of experiential education, and it is a great pleasure to be able to explore that with Ken today.

[00:02:04] Ken, it's a pleasure to have you on the podcast today. Truth be told. We know each other from my involvement with Strategic Partnerships, which you lead. But what I want us to focus on today is the role of work experience and inspiring students of all ages. But before we do that, I suspect that there's a good JAG origin story in here.

[00:02:25] Take me back to 1980 and tell us how you founded Jack. 

[00:02:31] Ken Smith: [00:02:31] Hey, thank you, Jim. And thank you for having me on it. It is actually quite a story - 40 years back.  The State of Delaware was in bad shape in the worst shape it's ever been in second highest unemployment rate in the country. The highest dropout rate in the country, the courts had seized control of the schools to require desegregation.

[00:02:52] The state was near bankruptcy. The governor had vetoed the budget and the democratic legislature overrode it. The DuPont company was prepared to leave Delaware. There was a 19% state income tax. On top of the federal income tax. The schools were just. Terrible. So that was a moment when the governor, despite all of that said, look, we're only 140 miles long.

[00:03:20] We're only three counties at low tide. We shouldn't be able to do a lot better here by working together. And so we organized a five task forces over six or seven months, tried to figure out what really worked and put together the JAG model. The last point I'll make. And this is my best part of the story.

[00:03:41] Given that mess I've just described. We were gathered in the governor's residence. It was about midnight. We had just gotten announcements of some major layoffs. Wall street refused to buy any more of the state bonds. We were going around the table with the cabinet. And so we finally get to JAG. The governor says Ken and the team have worked really hard.

[00:04:05] Here's this plan can go ahead and give the plan. So I made my compelling case for why we should do this. Governor turns to the cabinet and said, what do you think? Somebody, Hey, it's great idea, but we're booked, we're over our heads. We shouldn't do it now. Can't do it now. Next one says, no, it's just too much.

[00:04:24] No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Gets to me, yes. The governor says, well, the I's have it. And he said, Ken, let's talk about how we get it implemented. We can't wait. There's too many young people in this state in too much distress. Yep. We're. Over our heads here, but let's go do that. So that led to the implementation there, you know, within 18 months it was a great success serving some of the most challenged and vulnerable young people in the state, which was the design that it was intended to do.

[00:05:00] Three new States came to us and said, we want what you have. And so we then expanded the test. Then vice-president Mondale, of course, a good Democrat, called up Republican governor DuPont and said, I don't usually help Republican governors more than I need to. But, you've got something pretty special there, governor, and we'd like to put some money into it to expand it.

[00:05:23] So run the moving forward 40 years, it's 1.5 million, very vulnerable and disadvantaged young people who have been served. We're in 40 States and 1,450 communities about 75,000 highly vulnerable young people in the midst of the pandemic. Part of the program. 

[00:05:43] Jim Stellar: [00:05:43] Well, that it's just so compelling. And I love the story.

[00:05:48] It sounds like a story out of Lincoln's cabinet. But I like to go a little deeper into the organization of JAG. I know it works closely with the governors in each state and you've discussed some of that to get that needed cooperation between the schools and the local industry. So could you talk a little bit about why collaboration is like and how important is the governor's influence in making the industry or high school cooperation happen?

[00:06:13] Ken Smith: [00:06:13] Yeah. So we're in 40 States. We have 14 governors that serve on the national board of jug. That's the largest number of governors to serve in any board in the country. And in this era, in an, all the mess that the countries, and it's a, obviously a wonderful testimonial to us. That these governors devote their time, their attention, their reputations to it. In general, governors are critically important.

[00:06:39] We're a small nonprofit. If you ask the question who are the people in the government that can actually mobilize public and private sector systems and resources, the short answer is governors. They said at the apex of the economy, the education system, the higher education system. The workforce system.

[00:06:57] So they have been vitally important with rare exceptions in those 40 States. It has been the governor has made the decision and, and rounded up the public and private sector support. And that just let me stress that that is crucial to this 40 years of success. 

[00:07:22] 19,000 employers hire jagged young people. And when we do the survey of them, they say we do that because they've got 37 employability competencies there, they show up for work on time. They know what to do their customer service focused and they're ready to learn. So we have found a very important means of demonstrating to employers, the readiness of even the most vulnerable young people, which we have proven are young people of truly great promise.

[00:07:51] Jim Stellar: [00:07:51] Well, this leads me to my next question, because the key topic of this podcast is how the experience of work while in school, particularly for us in the college years, but I know you go beyond that, not only builds skills that can lead to employment, but also builds inspiration that makes the student a better learner.

[00:08:10] I know you've seen that in JAG. You've talked about it a little bit. Can you give us any insight as someone who's worked on JAG for so long, but why you think that is? Why does Jack inspire students? 

[00:08:25] Ken Smith: [00:08:25] So there's probably lots of reasons. Again, bear in mind, we've served the most vulnerable to be honest, in many cases, there's not parents at home.

[00:08:34] And if there are they're fully occupied trying to make a living and keeping the household together. So one of the most inspiring things, when we ask our young people is the responsible adult touch what you call a job specialist. Who has held personally accountable, following the business approach for both the education and the economic success of each of these young people.

[00:08:58] So they build the kind of relationship - the term that our young people use most often when I ask them about JAG, you're my family or you're my second family. And it is an unbelievably consistent message, which in its own way is an enormous responsibility. Because that's how they see us. The employers are crucially important, not just because they're the end game of what we're trying to do, but they do provide part-time employment In high school in high school.

[00:09:25] They provide internships. In some cases they provide work experience. They provide job shadowing because for many of these young people, they've had a very narrow scope of what they have seen or what their parents or their relatives have done. And we try to open their minds to, you know, obviously STEM-related and just a whole variety of other occupations.

[00:09:47] So employers help us do that. It's also true that like all of us, you're never quite sure what your direction is until you've had a chance to try it. So we need to have that kind of trial experience. And so, and then our young people in most cases are in poverty. They need to work. So this is not an option.

[00:10:09] This is something they need to do, but we don't want them to do is to leave school, to do it. So this is where we try to keep it in that 20 hours a week range. But all the evidence, as you know, in the data is young people do better in school. If they're working. There's more to it. They feel more motivated and we absolutely believe that.

[00:10:31] And we think we can prove it. So that work experience, and we, you know, we like staffing firms because they can give our young people six or seven different kinds of jobs in the course of a year and meeting the needs of their clients, but giving our young people a chance to test drive different jobs and learn different skills.

[00:10:52] Finally, we redesigned our curriculum to be project-based learning, which means employers are engaged with us in both the design and the actual implementation of the project. So young people learn by doing around an absolutely real business problem or business opportunity. 

[00:11:15] Jim Stellar: [00:11:15] This sounds so familiar to me, as you know, I was Dean of Arts and Sciences at Northeastern university a hundred year old co-op school.

[00:11:23] And what differentiated it from every other school that I've been at? Or was that before, was that it had this cadre of industry folks who would take a deep interest in the education of the students, as well as use them in their corporations to do a function. And I wondered if you could talk a little bit about the industry side.

[00:11:45] We know the high school teachers and others college teachers, in my case, we're passionate about the kids' education, but it was sort of a surprise to the kids and to some of the new faculty who came from other universities that's the industry people would take such an interest in cultivating that family.

[00:12:04] So do you have any ideas about why people from industry who have day jobs, who of course could look at the kid as a future employee take this sort of personal interest that creates as you wisely said, that family feel why, why do they do that? 

[00:12:21] Ken Smith: [00:12:21] So there's probably three different answers. When we 

[00:12:27] started this, the economy wasn't very good in the 19 early 1980s, but it was okay, but it wasn't great. So to some degree there was the normal, gosh these might be good future employees. Let's get to know them make sense. So there was a, you know, business theory, but truthfully there was enough unemployed. They didn't have to do that because the market had a lot of talent.

[00:12:48] It was actually, and this now is even carried out in the, you know, the highest levels. During the pandemic in the end of awful, lot of people in business are teachers at heart. You know, they teach the people around them. They're constantly having to teach other employees about different aspects of business and the things.

[00:13:10] So you'd give them a chance to apply that instinct and that experience with young people. Finally, because these are very vulnerable, young people, tough situations fell behind in their education problems at home, whatever the issues are - there is the instinct that so many Americans have to be of help.

[00:13:29] That's why we've got so many volunteers here. That is absolutely the case. Now we are overrun with offers of help and mentoring and, and ways of trying to be of assistance. Fortunately, we've got a fairly, you know, structured way to allow that to happen within the confines of the time that they have available.

[00:13:52] And that's why they're engaged as part of our learning process and project based learning to learn competencies and skills. That's why we give them part-time work experience wherever we can get it. That's why we have business advisory boards and businesses tend to dominate the nonprofit boards that oversee the program.

[00:14:09] So we keep ourselves focused on the jobs. It's mpressive. And it's inspiring to see the level of engagement. 

[00:14:17] Jim Stellar: [00:14:17] One of the things that I did when I was Dean of Arts and Sciences, when I got a new employer, and there was a fair amount of turnover just naturally, is to introduce them to an old employer.

[00:14:28] And what I was after was not the theory, the business plan, which they knew from our presentation, but this emotional thing. Did you. Do that, did you ever JAG connect employers when you have a new one so that they can sort of get them the message? 

[00:14:44] Ken Smith: [00:14:44] Indeed. The turnover rates, I know you appreciate this, but in the last couple of years, even pre COVID the hiring manager or the manager in a store or facility, they turnover fast.

[00:14:58] So you're constantly having to re-engage. So we try to do it either by business sector. So somebody in the logistics space called Susie or Johnny, and then the other company next door and said, Hey, we've had a great experience. You ought to give JAG a chance. There's gatherings in that community, through the chamber, through the Rotarians are key.

[00:15:18] Something that allows us to get visibility where employers will say, this is really terrific. You ought to meet these young people. Let's get involved. We also create gatherings, when you can physically gather, that brings employers together to educate them about it. So short answers, yes. That we look at every way both to make sure the handoff occurs in the company we're already in when somebody new arrives and to have them reach out to their colleagues in similar industries, both at a chief human resource officer level at the top of the house. But also in that community based hiring managers and managers. 

[00:15:59] Jim Stellar: [00:15:59] So I'm going to go to the other side of the equation. Now that's the high schools and I'd like to just restrict ourselves to them. I have plenty of experiences with the colleges. And so you must be also involving them to sort of square the circle and get the people who are guiding these students in high school, involved with the employers.

[00:16:18] Is there a particular trick to doing that or do they just do what the governor asks them to do? And do you have to do any recruiting of the high schools to get them to participate in JAG? 

[00:16:29] Ken Smith: [00:16:29] Very much have to do that. Pre COVID every school, you know, the school day is tight. It's very tight. Right? And you let's put, let's put another class into the school day.  That is not easy to do.

[00:16:44] The law says you got to do social studies and math and English. You got to do those. You got to do those. So how do you wedge another class into, and it's a daily class because we need that kind of contact to get through our 37 employability competencies. Secondly, they have to help us decide, and this is sort of the definition ,we have all these barriers we use to select, but in the end, it boils down to the guidance counselor and the assistant principal.

[00:17:14] I said, give us your 45 kids that aren't going to make it. And within seconds they can answer that question. The good news is they actually do know who is not going to make it for all kinds of reasons. It's not just economic issues, but personal and others. So we do try to, and the schools actually do find a way to get us in, because we take the lowest performing part of the population that is most at risk for not staying and keep them there.

[00:17:39] Well, not only is it the right thing to do, but run the math. If the average kid's worth 10 grand a year to a school district in various flows of money. If you can keep those 40 young people there to 45, there's close to a half, a million dollars of revenue.

[00:18:00] Plus you cut your dropout rate by a lot. You know, we consistently get 90% of our young people to graduate. It's the lowest performing quadrant of the population. So just follow it. It just lifts the numbers dramatically. If we can have that kind of success. So, you know, we're in 1,450 schools, that's terrific.

[00:18:24] There's tens of thousands more out there. And you know, this is a really hard time because school days have actually been shortened because of social distancing. You can only have half the class or less. The online education is a much shorter period of instructional time with more breaks. So the battle continues to stay in the school day.

 [00:18:45] Jim Stellar: [00:18:45] But it is nice when a plan comes together. And the right thing to do is also the expedient thing to do. And that's one of the reasons that Northeastern was very successful and rose rapidly in the rankings. I'm in good contact with Drexel and Cincinnati. Those are the three old private public universities that, that do cooperative education.

[00:19:04] So but I want to do a build off your last point. In higher education, the same thing happens with tuition dollars. If students are retained, the graduated, the higher rate, you get that immediate budget benefit. And if you are a provost, like I was, you can reallocate money. That's new, that comes from additional tuition dollars.

[00:19:24] And then you also have the reputation rise as the universities compete with each other. If the graduation rates are higher. And then finally there's a new era coming where employability is actually being measured, thanks to big data analytics.

[00:19:40] And that's going to become part of the reputation score that can you get kids move up the hierarchy of income from their family income to where they graduate. But I know JAG also gets other sources of funding and it might be interesting because you're at the intersection between these two worlds for you to talk a little bit about how you get funds to support JAG.

[00:20:04] I know for example, I read that you just got a $200,000 grant in Texas. I I've seen you involve your people involved with the Lumina Foundation. Very important foundation in higher education. Can you talk a little bit about how you managed to do fundraising for JAG so you can stay around – and you obviously are.

[00:20:24] Gotcha. 

[00:20:25] Ken Smith: [00:20:25] So 85% of the total revenues to the 40 States, which is about $110 million is public money in some form or other. So yes, we get 24 state appropriations. I think it's the largest number of appropriations for a program of this kind. Schools put up in many cases, most cases, at least part of the money, local workforce boards just a variety of entities.

[00:20:52] And of course, having the governors help us with various federal funds they control. Of the 15% that's private, a lot of that is of course, local companies and organizations and foundations that get to know jobs for Delaware, graduates jobs for Florida graduates and invest in it because they've seen the benefits to the society, to the community and to employers.

[00:21:15] At a national level, we're honored by having some wonderful supporters that bring crucially important money, but they also, and we give them, this is a, these days, it's not a minor matter, they share their reputations and their brand with us. So when I can say AT&T and General Electric and Microsoft and McDonald's, and you know, just the whole range of nationally, highly respected brands that invest in the work of the national organization and also hire our young people.

[00:21:48]It gives us immediate standing as we talk to the next organization. So the national organization, there's a budget of less than $5 million. And two thirds of which come from private contributions on the rest are affiliation fees for the services we provide to the to the affiliates. The broad base of private support is at our local level $250, $500, a thousand dollars plus time and energy by their people as mentors and judges, and so on. 

[00:22:20] Jim Stellar: [00:22:20] Time and energy may even be more important. What strikes me is that you are taking the role of the federal government here. You as a foundation are coordinating various States and helping them to do the right thing. And I have been waiting my whole life for the federal government to do something like what happens in other countries that I know well, like Canada, where they're putting a billion dollars into getting experiences in college or Thailand,

[00:22:43] which made it part of the government organization or Australia, others. And so I'm optimistic that the learning and employment record, which we'll have to discuss in another podcast maybe could be a framework for the federal government to try to drive some of these same operations, because what you talk about fits perfectly with my experience from cooperative education

[00:23:03] schools and what I think higher education has to do. So I really feel that there's a lot that we in podcast audience can learn from you. And thank you for sharing it as we're coming to the end of time. I just wanted to give you a chance to add something else. If you would like to, to this excellent conversation.

[00:23:25] Would you like to end with something? 

[00:23:28] Ken Smith: [00:23:28] most important, less than we've learned 40 years, one and a half million, highly vulnerable young people later, we actually do know what to do to help this population succeed. It is not rocket science. It's hard work. It's hard work, and you cannot ever take your eye off that coalition which is fragile.

[00:23:51] COVID puts enormous pressures on the business community, life or death pressures, enormous pressures on families, and enormous pressures on students in schools. But if you build the right system and you have multiple owners and committed investors, time, energy, money in that. If it's consistently applied and it's held accountable for results, we can help the poorest most challenged population get 90% graduation rates.

[00:24:22] We can triple their rate of full-time jobs, double the rate of full-time employment and essentially double the rate they go to post-secondary education and triple the rate that they actually persistent succeed. It can be done. 

[00:24:38] Jim Stellar: [00:24:38] And you and your organization are living proof that since 1980 to the present, you've made it work.

[00:24:45] So I really have nothing to add to that except to say, thank you. In my judgment, JAG is a model for what higher education broadly across the United States needs to learn to do. Thank you very much for this. It was a pleasure to talk with you today and keep up the great work for the country. 

[00:25:05] Ken Smith: [00:25:05] Thank you. We're all at it. 

[00:25:08] Mary Churchill: [00:25:08] Thank you for listening. We hope you will come back soon for the next installation of ExperiencED. As we continue to talk about the neuroscience and sociology of enhancing higher education 

[00:25:20] Jim Stellar: [00:25:20] by combining direct experience with classical academic learning