Autodesk Foundation School-to-Career Programs

Bob Pearlman, Autodesk Foundation President

Straight Talk About STC Programs
By Bob Pearlman, Autodesk Foundation President, 1996-2000

In the early 1990s, when new information age technological tools began transforming many U.S. businesses into high-tech workplaces, a common concern arose: "Where will we find enough skilled workers?" Recruiting people who were proficient with computers and who had good communication and teamwork skills was becoming a problem. In search of a solution, many partnerships between businesses and schools cropped up across the country with the aim of helping students acquire the skills needed to be productive twenty-first century workers and citizens. The effort became known as the "School-to-Work" or "School-to-Career" movement.

While many companies are still unaware of the benefits of school-to-career programs, others are unclear about what it takes to make a successful program work. In this interview, Bob Pearlman, President of the Autodesk Foundation, shares sage insights about the movement and explains the vision behind Autodesk's exemplar internship program.

Q: Some people view school-to-career partnerships as a means to help students chart a vocational path. Others see it as a way for businesses to give something back to the community. How would you explain it?

A: School-to-career programs are not a vocational path; students aren't just learning skills focused in one area. These programs are for all kids, whether they're college-bound or pursuing a career. They are mind-opening and mind-bending opportunities that help students get a better concept of what they're going to do and what they need to workers and as citizens.

In many places, companies get involved in school-to-career activities mostly out of moral conviction. But often employees don't understand it; they think it's a thing where you take time away from your job to work with kids. At Autodesk, managers work with the student interns just as they would with other employees, and it pays off in terms of productivity.

That's why studies such as the return-on-investment report of the National Employer Leadership Council are so important. Companies need to know that besides fulfilling their role as a good corporate and local citizens, they can actually achieve productivity gains in the workplace and get help with their recruiting needs.

Q: Why is it important for businesses to be involved in providing learning opportunities for young people?

A: School-based academic learning by itself just doesn't do the job; it's not a rich enough experience. Through worksite opportunities, students can work with adults in a way that's not possible in school.

A lot of studies coming out now support this, such as "The Teaching Firm" report from the Center for Workforce Development. It shows that most learning takes place on the job through informal teaching and learning embedded in work activities.

Studies like this really verify what our interns are telling us. They go to work on the job and they learn like crazy. And they're able to relate to adults in a very productive manner--in a way that school-based experiences don't allow. It's one thing to have a teacher who directs your work. It's another to have coworkers and a project manager and be part of a team that is actually producing something. These kinds of experiences are very, very rich for kids.

Q: Why aren't more companies involved?

A: Many people don't know that much about these practices because they aren't that widespread right now. A lot of school-to-career opportunities don't exist in large measure yet. With a better understanding of this topic, many companies could get involved in providing tremendous workplace opportunities for students.

Q: What are some of the lessons that can be learned from Autodesk's internship program?

A: High-school students can be awesomely this case, in high-tech workplaces. I think it will help a lot for other companies to learn about our program. If they structure programs in the way that we have, then the payoff to the company is going to be significant.

This has been a tremendous program for Autodesk, which is reflected in what a lot of the managers tell us. It's not only helped them get the work done, but it's created a very productive recruitment stream for them.

Q: How do internship programs help companies meet recruitment needs?

A: Many companies need highly skilled people and often they say that these are "technical people." The truth is that the people these companies are seeking have to have a whole variety of skills that aren't normally talked about, the biggest being communication skills. They need to be able to write in a way that other people understand what they are talking about. They need to be able to get into a meeting group and work productively, which is not easy because very few people had that kind of experience in school. They have got to be able to work as part of a team, and plan, and do project management, and all these kinds of things, to function well in a high-tech workplace.

In order to prepare for those things you need to have experiences that are sort of like that. Just being sent home by a teacher to write a paper or do a problem set in mathematics, while those are important fundamental skills, have to be extended into the context I'm talking about, so students get a whole array of working skills. Some people call them the `soft' skills. Others argue that they're the `hard' skills because they're much harder to acquire.

Also many companies have recruitment goals in terms of diversity, both race and gender. The company may want to meet diversity goals but doesn't get the chance because there may not be qualified people in the marketplace. Often it's programs like internships that help attract women and students of color, giving them the opportunities and confidence to compete for high-tech jobs in the future.

Q: The Autodesk Foundation manages the internship program at Autodesk, Inc?

A: Yes, the Foundation manages the program because it fits with Foundation's mission to help business and educational communities work together to provide opportunities for students. Managing the program and having the knowledge about how to do it right is a way we can help provide a model for what other companies can do.

For instance, our school-to-work program manager, Judy Morgan, functioned as a consultant to Charles Schwab & Company in San Francisco. After learning more about these programs, Schwab was able to create, within a year, 500 internships at their main processing centers across the country. So our exemplar program was of great help to them. We're also doing that with other companies looking into school-to-career that need some help in figuring out how to structure their program.

Q: Are there other ways, beside internship programs, for businesses to collaborate with schools?

A: The most important way for businesses to work with schools is to provide internship opportunities, but there are other ways they can work together. For instance:

  • Businesses can provide opportunities for teachers to work at the companies, say during the summer, so teachers can learn more about what the companies are doing and what's happening in the world of work and the economy today.
  • Business people can collaborate with the schools on designing curriculum and developing processes for the workplace learning side, such as ways to evaluate and assess students' performance at the worksite.
  • Businesses also can set up programs for employees to mentor kids in schools. This is an important function. It can even be done through technology. For instance, Hewlett Packard has pioneered what they call the HP Mentoring Program. They have about 5,000 employees across the country who, through email, are mentoring kids in high school.
  • Students can be invited into the workplace to job shadow.
  • Students and teachers can be brought into workplaces on industry tours, which could mean they spend a day as part of a group, learning different aspects about an industry.
  • All of these kinds of things can be done, but it's important to do it in a strategic way so that you try to build a system that produces many, many more of these opportunities.

Q: What kind of school-to-career system is needed?

A: An ideal system would have the schools and workplaces working together with higher education. There are some instances where this is happening, but it's not widespread and often there's not a systematic way for the industries and schools to work together.

A quality system takes the form of organizations that are seriously involved in the local partnerships and a regional organization that can actually make a lot of these things happen. That's what we're trying to do with BaySCAN.

Q: What is BaySCAN?

A: BaySCAN stands for Bay Area School to Career Action Network. It is a coalition of businesses, labor, K-12 schools, and higher education that Autodesk is currently working with to build a regional school-to-work system. Putting together key parties helps all these partnerships develop. We envision that in the future, industry people will work very closely with the people in K-12 schools and in higher education in what we call a "learning collaborative." That would be groups working collectively on each of these things: the school side, the curriculum, and the workplace experience.

One of the challenges to building a regional structure is it's not well understood what it would look like in practice. You need to have people take a look at it and understand why this is a positive direction to pursue. BaySCAN will be convening companies throughout the region around industry clusters and involving them in working with the schools. For instance, it's possible for a student to be in a high-school program that is built around a broad career context, such as health services, financial services, information technology, or multimedia. The cluster gives students a chance to explore all aspects of an industry and provides a context for learning.

So one aspect is getting the companies engaged and the other is to encourage schools to organize themselves to work more effectively with their industry partners.

Q: How does what's happening in California compare with other school-to-career efforts around the country?

A: Our program at Autodesk arose in a climate in which the workplace experience was great for the kids but there was no parallel school-based experience. One of the reasons for this was economic. Like many places, the schools first needed to attain state grant monies, which are used like venture capital, to set up these kinds of programs.

Some states are in their third or fourth year of funding. When you have a full-blown school-to-career system, like they have a few places in this country--Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Michigan, Oregon, and others--kids get these learning opportunities. If a well-developed program doesn't exist, you may have worksite opportunities for kids, but they're not quality. In other words, the school is not working with the industry to try to think out how to make those experiences good ones, or the industry is not setting them up very well.

Q: What is considered a quality workplace experience for students?

A: Quality work-based learning experiences are the kind of thing we have going on at Autodesk. It has to do with having an effective program manager who works with the managers and the interns to ensure the students aren't just doing things like photocopying but are having challenging learning experiences.

It's also important for students to have quality school-based experiences. And that depends on whether the school actually reorganizes itself to create focused learning communities. These may take the form of academies in which you might have 30-100 kids all going through the same experience so they have a lot of contextual learning about the kind of skills and knowledge they need for a career they may be considering.

If both the schools and the workplaces are working together then those learning experiences are very positive for the kids because there is a connection to workplace learning.

Q: Are there any elements that are critical to the success of school-to-work programs?

A: One of lessons around the country is that all these activities don't happen if you just have companies and schools. Intermediary organizations need to be involved; these are sometimes called "third-party intermediaries" or "brokers." In the Bay Area, these are known as School-to-Career partnerships (See BaySCAN for more information). They play the role of connecting the schools and companies. They do the screening of the kids, help them with resume-writing, and everything else that makes it a good experience for all concerned.

Q: If a company is interested in setting up an internship program, where should they start?

A:    The first thing I would suggest is to take a look at some companies that are engaged in these programs and have had some productive outcomes. Visit a company like Autodesk or Schwab, one that's doing it.

Call your local School-to-Career partnership and find out what has been done already in your career. The National School-to-Work office has information available about STC activities in each state.

About the Author
Bob Pearlman is the former President of the Autodesk Foundation. He can be reached by email at