The Coaches’ Perspective: Future Readiness Lab already making its mark on students

One striking change Deer Lakes High School Counselor Taylor Austin sees in the team of students she’s coaching in the Future Readiness Lab is their level of accountability. Carlynton High School Transition Coordinator Jerry Pepe has noticed that as well, but perhaps even more significant to him, is how his team’s confidence level and communications skills have strengthened.

Based on several interviews over the past month, their views were representative of educators serving as Lab Coaches. Everyone interviewed identified personal growth as well as gains in skills that ready students for the workplace among the Lab’s key outcomes.

Launched last fall with funding from The Heinz Endowments, the Lab is a pilot program that takes a novel approach toward preparing students for post-secondary education and career choices as well as for contributing to their communities. It is part of The Pittsburgh Readiness Institute, a major initiative that The Heinz Endowments is undertaking in collaboration with Penn State University.

The Lab’s curriculum revolves around five big questions: Who am I? Who do I want to become? How do I get there? How do I continue to learn? How do I give back to my community?

Diverse teams of students from eight schools participate in the pilot, including Pittsburgh Brashear, Clairton City, Hampton, Montour, Penn Hills and Woodland Hills high schools, in addition to Deer Lakes and Carlynton.

Teams meet weekly with their Coaches and Consortium staff. Between meetings, students complete assignments and get access to a variety of virtual career learning experiences. In the final months of the school year, the teams also are expected to take on community projects.

When the program kicked off in October, Austin said she found herself reminding her students at Deer Lakes to attend all the sessions and do their Lab work. Five months in, everything has changed. Her students are keeping up with assignments on their own, emailing her with questions and reaching out to let her know if something—like a doctor’s appointment—might keep them from making a meeting.

“It’s not just accountability, it’s responsibility and time management,” Austin said, noting high school juniors often don’t develop those skills “until they’ve held their first jobs” because typical school days, built around bell schedules and classroom routines, don’t call on them for as much self-direction or individual planning.

Like Austin, Pepe said his students have grown tremendously. “It’s been 1,000 percent. It’s gone from them being completely silent for the first few meetings…to them taking the initiative of starting a conversation, maybe about their community project, or taking on tasks for the project that they might not normally do.”

Since the pilot began, students have taken deep dives to answer the Lab’s guiding questions. Among other ways, they’ve used the “Predictive Index” to gain insight about traits, such as their communications styles and collaborative approaches, that not only influence their group dynamics, but also might suit them for different kinds of work. Additionally, each has done three career explorations and homed in on one of particular interest. They’ve also done video presentations and currently are recording reflections with SLB Radio.

Much of the growth their Coaches see likely has come from greater self-understanding and the self-assurance it can bring, said Christy Kuehn, PhD, one of the Consortium Program Directors who organizes the Lab.

“Through the work we do with them, and the Lab’s emphasis on imagining their futures, students have to take a close look in the mirror,” she said.

“In the busyness of a school year, sometimes this kind of introspection is an afterthought,” added Program Director Jenn Sethman, who also helps organize the pilot. “The Lab sets it as the priority, “We’re starting from the premise that, without intentional work around these questions, many students can end up either without a real plan for the future, or with a plan that doesn’t fit.”

Giving students the space and time for self-exploration has had a remarkable impact, said Amber Niedomys, who coaches a Lab team at Pittsburgh Brashear and knew of at least one student for whom the Lab inspired a complete change of direction.

The young man she had in mind is a good student who intends to go to college, but beyond that, had seemed ambivalent about his plans, she added.  “It was kind of like, “I guess I’ll just be a lawyer. But based on some of the things we’ve done in the Lab, he’s decided he wants to become a psychiatrist.”

“I think it’s a much better fit for him than being a lawyer, just based on what I know of him as a person,” she said. “It’s something he’s selected based on his skills and what he’s learned about himself.”

Like others interviewed, Niedomys has found that such changes have made the Lab a rewarding experience not just for the students, but also for the Coaches.

“We’re providing the space for kids to reflect on what it is they care about, who it is they are and what it is they want to do with their futures, and after we provide that space, we’re helping them build a plan to achieve it,” Niedomys said. “For me as an educator, well, right there is why I became a teacher.”

From her standpoint, the whole experience “has been exhilarating.”


Consortium pilots group Career Mentoring with BNY Mellon

With approval from the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE), the Consortium began piloting a model for small-group virtual career mentoring this month in collaboration with BNY Mellon. Previously, career mentoring had to take place one-on-one to meet state requirements around work-based learning.

“We sought approval for our group model both to make the experiences more accessible and also to make them more comfortable for mentees or mentors who might prefer a group situation,” said Program Director Debbie Pixton, who is the Consortium’s facilitator for the pilot.

The U.S. Department of Education recently cited the new approach in a report on ideas for expanding work-based learning opportunities.

Like traditional one-on-one mentoring, the program is designed to help students explore careers, learn about workplace expectations and get practice building professional relationships.

Under the pilot, a team from BNY Mellon is working with small groups of students from Greensburg Salem, Keystone Oaks and Woodland Hills high schools. Over the course of the pilot, students will learn about BNY Mellon and the kinds of jobs available in finance, investment management, and the banking firm’s other areas of expertise.

Amy Brake, Pittsburgh Events Coordinator at BNY Mellon and member of the Consortium’s Advisory Council, said “This program has presented a unique opportunity for BNY Mellon to engage with young, bright minds and better understand what students are looking for in their own careers. We are able to tailor the program to the students’ interests and showcase the expansive career opportunities that BNY Mellon offers.”

During presentations, students can ask professionals questions that might be on their minds as they think about career choices.  At a recent session about technology, for example, one student was curious about how to know if he might be putting in work and hours beyond his compensation level.

Nick Gasbarro, Vice President – Digitization and Business Change, told the student it’s better to weigh job opportunities more for the interest they hold than for the salaries they command.

Taking on extra assignments or projects also brings its own rewards, Gasbarro added. “Getting that exposure, having that experience and building that network is more valuable than any pay raise,” he said.

Because students can interact over the course of the pilot with multiple staffers, they build more “social capital” than a one-on-one mentoring experience affords, Pixton said.

“The model also can work better than individual mentoring for companies seeking exposure to students making career choices,” Pixton added. “We designed it to be replicable and hope to engage other companies and schools in the coming year.”


Consortium offers video primer on design thinking, HCD

The Consortium has launched a video series to acquaint educators with the basics of design thinking and Human-Centered Design (HCD).

The first 10 videos, which cover methods focused on empathy, feedback and brainstorming, among others, can be accessed on this playlist from our Youtube channel. (Be sure to subscribe for the latest content updates!) 

Design thinking is a creative way of looking at problems from multiple perspectives and developing solutions that take them into account.  HCD is a subset that provides iterative methods to engage stakeholders in decision-making.

Our in-house HCD team includes two Certified Facilitators and two Certified Practitioners, all trained at the LUMA Institute. The team also offers private group trainings on request. To book a session for your team, contact our Director of Organizational Advancement, Jackie Foor.


Snack & Learns offer virtual interaction with professionals in industry and higher education

The Consortium’s Snack & Learn series continues next month with four more presentations, following a January line-up that included Duquesne Light Co., Elliott Group and Waynesburg University. Students and educators must register online for any of the upcoming sessions.

On the agenda for February are presentations from the German American Chamber of Commerce (GACC); local tech entrepreneur, John Rattray; Schell Games and Duquesne Light.

The series kicked off in the fall to provide virtual opportunities to help students explore careers or learn about post-secondary education and training options. It also affords educators the chance to learn about the job market their students will be entering and get information needed to provide support. Our upcoming sessions include:

  • February 3, beginning at 11 a.m., GACC is expected to discuss the apprenticeships it organizes for member companies. These programs provide on-the-job training for occupations ranging from polymer technicians to electrical and mechanical technicians.
  • February 9, beginning at 1 p.m., Rattray will talk about launching a business.
  • February 18, at 11 a.m., Duquesne Light will present on its EDT Boot Camp for high school students. The Boot Camp helps students build skills and find out if they might be candidates for the Electrical Distribution Technology (EDT) program the company offers in collaboration with Community College of Allegheny County.
  • February 24, beginning at 11 a.m., Schell Games winds up the month presenting on workplace expectations.

“We aim for variety,” said Program Director Gina Barrett, who organizes the Snack & Learn sessions. “Even before the pandemic, it wasn’t always possible for students to find opportunities to interact with professionals directly and ask questions about careers or the different kinds of post-secondary training they might pursue.”

Since the outset of COVID-19, it’s been difficult for some students even to find ways of meeting state standards associated with career learning. The Consortium designed the series to provide opportunities that enable students to do so, sometimes with help from educators who can augment the presentations with assignments, such as reflective writing.

Earlier this month, a presentation from Duquesne Light afforded students an opportunity to learn about careers in the electric utility industry and about a training program for Electrical Distribution Technicians that the company offers in collaboration with Community College of Allegheny County.

In addition, Elliott Group offered a January presentation on manufacturing careers and a representative from Waynesburg College talked about applying to colleges amid COVID-19.

Lillian Grate

Consortium welcomes new Board member

The Consortium in January appointed Lillian Grate to its Board. She currently serves as Shadyside Academy’s Director of Inclusion, Equity & Community Relations.

Grate brings a background not just in diversity, equity, and inclusion, but also in mental health. She is a state Licensed Professional Counselor and, immediately prior to joining Shadyside, served as a Community Trauma Fellow at Neighborhood Allies.  Before that, she spent five years as a Mental Health Therapist with Renewal Treatment, Inc., a nonprofit, community-based outpatient mental health clinic.

“We are excited to welcome Lillian to the Consortium’s board,” said the Consortium’s Executive Director, Mary Kay Babyak. “Her specific background in diversity, equity, inclusion and mental health will make a significant contribution to the Consortium’s mission and work. We look forward to having her share her valuable insights and knowledge through her role on the board.”

Snack & Learns offer career learning opportunities

The Consortium’s Snack & Learn series continues this month with presentations from representatives of Duquesne Light, Elliott Group and Waynesburg University. Students and educators can learn more and register using this flyer.

The Duquesne Light session will give students opportunities to learn about in careers in the utility industry and about the company’s Electrical Distribution Technician training program. The session with Elliott Group will focus on manufacturing and Waynesburg University’s session will help students with planning for college in the era of COVID-19.

Snack & Learns are one way the Consortium continues to support students directly during the pandemic.

Check out two new videos in Career Journeys!

Following a week-long holiday break, the Consortium is again adding videos weekly again.Among our latest entries is Anu Jain, PhD, Executive Director of Pittsburgh Mayor Peduto’s Gender Equity Commission, which helps raise awareness of gender equity issues and helps catalyze new initiatives around them.

Also new to our collection is Rose Flowers, Community Engagement Manager for the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association, which builds awareness, support and involvement for the environment in the watershed and for environmental equity.





TFIM offering “Snack & Learn” series

Our career exploration program, The Future Is Mine (TFIM) hosted a lineup of “Snack & Learn” sessions for participants over the past month, with plans to expand it as the year goes on. Presentations so far featured representatives from Citizens Bank, Allegheny Land Trust and Penn State University.

“We had a nice mix of speakers and we’re planning more,” said Consortium Program Director Gina Barrett, who co-manages TFIM with Jenn Sethman. “The Snack & Learn concept gives us a chance to support students with access to professionals for career insights and help our community partners showcase their organizations.”

To begin the series, “We had people sharing insights on environmental careers, banking and personal finance, and different options for post-secondary education,” added Sethman, also a Program Director. “Access to professionals in different fields helps broaden students’ thinking about the ways their own interests might lead to careers and can help them plan the steps to prepare for them.”

Citizens’ High School Relationships Manager, Osamase Ekhator and Kate Walsh, Relationship Manager, helped students understand the fundamentals of banking and shared insights about planning their financial futures.

Allegheny Land Trust’s Senior Director of Education and Curriculum, Julie Travaglini, talked about careers other than veterinary science and education that might interest students who like working with kids, animals or in the outdoors.

Debra Roach, Director of Continuing Education and Business Instructor at Penn State’s Beaver campus, helped students think about different paths for post-secondary education.

Most of presentations from last month and going forward will be recorded and made available to TFIM participants who were not able to attend the live sessions, as well as to schools participating in our Future Ready Alliance.








Alliance hosts SEL webinar with Christina Pate, PhD

Christina Pate, PhD

Our Future Ready Alliance is planning a second webinar on social and emotional learning (SEL), the latest featuring Christina Pate, PhD, Senior Research Associate at WestEd and Deputy Director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Center to Improve Social & Emotional Learning and School Safety.

Pate, whose expertise spans education, public health, wellness and social services, is expected to share evidence-based ideas for creating safe and supportive environments; fostering self-care and collective care; and promoting stakeholder communication, collaboration and co-design.

The webinar takes place at 1 pm, Wednesday, December 9. Although hosted by the Alliance, the webinar is open to all educators. Registration is available online.

The session with Pate follows an October webinar on social and emotional learning with Eva Allen, EdD., who developed an award-winning theory of “Cultural Care.”  A recording of Allen’s presentation is available online.


Educator in the Workforce offers apprenticeship webinar

Educators often are surprised to learn that building trade apprenticeship programs enable students to earn paychecks while they’re still learning. They’re also always interested to learn what the admission requirements are.

Both were among the key takeaways when our Educator in the Workforce program hosted a webinar with Ironworkers Local 3 Apprentice & Training Center.

Rick Pireaux, the Center’s Assistant Director, said apprentices working on jobs in Allegheny. County as part of the program start at around $20+ an hour, roughly 55% of the journeyman level they’ll reach when they complete the program in four or five years. Additionally, trainees get a full benefit package worth about $32/hour.

“It means we’re paying $53 an hour before we even teach you anything,” Pireaux said.

Like the 17 different apprenticeship training programs available in the region, the Ironworkers’ program requires an entrance exam focused on math and reading comprehension. The programs also require every enrollee to have a driver’s license because on-the-job training can take place at different worksites where contractors have projects.

Mike Huber, an attendee who serves as Transition Coordinator at Elizabeth Forward High School, said learning from EIW sessions with different apprenticeship training centers helped his district tweak its curriculum to give students more familiarity with the kinds of math used in building trades.

“The program is really designed to give educators a better grasp of how the subjects they’re teaching are actually applied in different work settings,” said Consortium Program Director Jenn Sethman, who oversees EIW. “It can help them and their districts better prepare students for employer expectations.”