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LAS CRUCES – Top public-school and higher education officials in Las Cruces agree: teaching employability skills and fostering workforce development should be a key focus not only at the university and community college level but also in K-12 classrooms across the school district.
The school district should begin teaching employability skills in kindergarten classrooms, said Las Cruces Public Schools Associate Superintendent Wendy Miller-Tomlinson. She joined Doña Ana Community College President Monica Torres, New Mexico State University Vice President for Student Success Renay Scott and Bridge of Southern New Mexico (BSNM) President and CEO Tracey Bryan during a panel discussion Aug. 8 at the Greater Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce’s annual education update lunch at the New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum.
Public schools should also ask itself, “What does industry really want?” Miller-Tomlinson said. “Students come to us with a lot of skills.” Schools should focus on teaching them the skills they don’t have to better adapt to the workforce, she said.
Noting that the organization was created 11 years ago as a result of a conversation started by the chamber, Bryan said BSNM is “a community effort to address economic challenges.” Comprehensive workforce development is created when educators at all levels “work in harmony to create a pipeline,” Bryan said. She added that LCPS has the state’s highest high school graduation rate, 86 percent, compared to 74 percent statewide. “Our community did that,” Bryan said. “The state is following our lead.”
“If we raise our expectations, our young people will meet the challenge,” Scott said.
“Education plays a vital role” in creating a “vibrant, healthy community and a robust economy,” Torres said. DACC offers 43 associate degrees and 56 workforce certificates to provide students with a broad spectrum of educational opportunities. For incoming high school graduates and returning community members alike, for credit and noncredit classes, Torres said, the goal is “train to succeed.” DACC also has one of the best small business development centers in the state, she said. “It’s about a community,” Torres said. “We all have a role.”
“Career choices are not limited by degrees,” Scott said. A part of higher education reform, she said, is increasing the emphasis on providing students with skills that are transferable to the workforce.
For example, Scott said, NMSU has a residency requirement that means most of nearly 2,200 freshmen will have to live on campus for their first schoolyear. That gives the university a better opportunity to help them learn to work together and to navigate conflict, which are important links to employability, she said.
“The answer is experience,” Bryan said. Work-based learning through apprenticeships and career and technical education programs allow students to explore career pathways and “experience what it’s like to be in the workforce.”
“To me, education is part of the real world,” Miller-Tomlinson said. Educators should provide students with “tools that encourage problem solving.”
“Transformation of Doña Ana County’s future lies in optimal alignment between supply and demand: aligning the systems that strengthen the knowledge, skills and abilities of our people with the very real needs of business for top-tier workforce talent,” BSNM said in a prepared statement. The Bridge has plans to convene leaders in key local industry sectors “to fully understand and map out their workforce needs (and) deploy a new tool … to create a common language … to align expectations with education, resources and employment.”
Mike Cook may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.