The Role of Employers in Building Students’ Social Capital

Thursday, August 3, 2023
Kaleb Clemons

Supporting and advocating for employer engagement in college and career pathways is a key priority for ESG. In our efforts to build stronger pathways for students, our team has worked with industry leaders, workforce boards, and chambers of commerce on strategies like identifying regional credentials of value that position students for high-wage and in-demand jobs; strengthening partnerships between employers and higher education institutions to ensure alignment between education and workforce; and supporting career exploration and preparation for both K-12 and postsecondary students. Employers are undeniably a critical voice and leader in the pathways ecosystem, and it is vital to connect students and employer partners in both workplace and classroom settings. 

In our ongoing social capital work, we recognize the critical role of employers in helping students build, expand, and mobilize their social connections and, relatedly, the need for intermediaries and educational leaders to partner with industry to help students strengthen and grow their personal networks. Indeed, research shows that access to new information, opportunities (like jobs), and people who can open doors to those opportunities often come through those individuals with whom we’re loosely connected. As we’ve worked with communities across the country to more intentionally embed social capital development into their college and career pathways, we’ve learned some key lessons about how employers can play a high-impact role in bolstering students’ social capital, which is an important step for driving economic and social mobility. 

Start with students’ existing networks. Many students, regardless of racial/ethnic background or socioeconomic status, will often look to family and friends for ideas about what is possible for their future and support in navigating the journey to get there. However, they may not have thought about their current network as a source for new connections with industry professionals. When prompted to consider not only their network but that of friends and family, students may emerge with new ideas for potential connections in career fields of interest. For example, after a relationship mapping exercise in her AVID class, one student in Pinellas County, FL who was interested in communication and marketing realized that her mother’s colleague worked in the field and would be a good person for her to talk to about her career aspirations. This was a great example of the type of informal employer engagement that can still have a big impact for students. Inviting employers to the classroom or taking students to employers (job fairs, field trips, etc.), while valuable, are not the only ways to drive conversations and connections between students and employers; it’s important to begin with an understanding of where employers might already fit into students’ existing networks.

Take a neighborhood approach to employer engagement. Just as students are already embedded within networks, so are school communities. While it can be tempting to lean on larger companies with existing volunteer or internship programs to help expand students’ connections, smaller businesses, often in close proximity to a school, can offer a more equitable and personalized experience, particularly for students who may need different types of support. In Boston, for example, the Apprentice Learning team, in collaboration with school staff, was able to place several 8th graders who spoke a very specific dialect within work-based learning experiences in a nearby small business in which the owners were from the same country of origin as the apprentices. This ensured that the apprentices, who might not have had the linguistic support they needed in another placement, were able to fully participate and benefit from the experience. 

Design “light touch” experiences with intentionality. While there is no doubt that an interrogation of students’ existing networks can surface new connections and information, it is also critical for their schools and other support systems to incorporate opportunities for them to meet a range of people outside of their networks. These do not have to be longer-term engagements to be impactful. When designed with intentionality, even “lighter touch” interactions can have a profound influence on students’ perspective on what’s possible for them and what decisions they might make for themselves. Across different communities, the teams ESG is supporting have been thoughtful about who their students may need and want to hear from. For the San Diego team, led by the Center for Equity and Postsecondary Attainment, it was especially important that even industry volunteers participating in “one-off” events represented a wide range of backgrounds and experiences. During a field trip to the airport, for example, students heard from a panel of employees who not only reflected their own gender and racial/ethnic diversity, but also took different educational pathways to get to their career. These ranged from individuals currently earning their first credential to those who held advanced degrees. Similarly, in San Antonio, the team led by SA WORX worked purposely to recruit first generation, gender-diverse professionals and graduate students in their region for a STEM career exploration panel in which students heard about different fields and careers from individuals that reflected their own identities and experiences. These one-time, lighter touch events, designed with intentionality, can play a big role in opening doors for students. 

Make the employer role in social capital building explicit. In successful partnerships, schools and employers help set each other up for success. A clearly articulated purpose, aligned with expectations and objectives, will create the foundation for meaningful connections between employer partners and students, regardless of the length of formal engagement. In Indianapolis, the Modern Apprenticeship Program team hosted a social capital orientation specifically for their worksite supervisors. The session served to establish a common definition of social capital, asked supervisors to reflect on the individuals who helped them along their own career journeys, and set the expectation that supervisors would serve as conduits for building apprentices’ networks. In fact, the team shared targets for the number of new connections that each apprentice should make within their worksite and helped supervisors brainstorm the various ways in which they might help them reach those targets. 

Employer partnerships are an essential aspect of all pathways work—and especially for helping students learn how to build and leverage their social capital. Bringing industry partners, employers, and students together helps expand what students see as possible, especially for occupations they may not have considered or been aware of. For many students, meeting and engaging with employers only happens in work-based learning experiences, but it shouldn’t stop there. Increasing the number of engagements between students and employers, in both group and individual settings, increases the chances for employer partners to become role models and mentors for students. Ideally, those student/employer engagements can lead directly to future opportunities for students to advance toward their career aspirations. 

How are you including employers in students’ educational experiences and network-building efforts? Send a note to Kaleb Clemons to let us know.