Published in the Lakeshore Weekly News on Feb. 9, 2017
By Meghan Davy
Minnetonka's VANTAGE program could serve as a model for bridging the nation's skills gap between students seeking jobs and employers looking to fill positions.
On Feb. 2, members of U.S. Sen. Al Franken's staff came to Vantage's off-site office learning space in Minnetonka to discuss the program, part of Franken's statewide "Advancing Career Pathways Tour." The tour is designed to highlight efforts around the state where employers and schools are forming partnerships to help prepare students for jobs of the future.
Franken's staff sat down with Vantage Program students, teachers and staff, school district officials, local employers, and school board members to discuss the school's efforts to ensure high school students learn skills needed for jobs that are in demand.
"My mentor works for KARE11, and she's really helped me with interviewing and my writing skills," said Minnetonka senior Macie Varner, a student in VANTAGE's Digital Journalism course whose group did a project that raised awareness on eating disorders. "I took this to see if this is something I'd want to do. It will help me with college, so I'm not wasting my money on something I'm not interested in."
According to his staff, Franken has said the current skills gap has left employers in Minnesota and across the country with millions of jobs they cannot fill because they cannot find people with the right training. But in many places across the state, school-business partnerships are now encouraging students to seek training for good-paying jobs that don't necessarily require a four-year degree. Franken and his staff are highlighting many of these efforts as part of the tour.
Unique learning experience
While in the VANTAGE program, students work with a project team to solve real-world problems and learn about the challenges of project-driven work. Under the direction of a licensed teacher and in partnership with professionals, project teams of 20 to 25 students strive to make a contribution to a partner-defined project while gaining experience in today's marketplace.
The program currently supports about 160 students, and offers coursework in Business Analytics, Business in a Global Economy, Design and Marketing, Digital Journalism and Health Sciences. A new area of study, Global Food Sustainability: Economics and the Environment, is planned to begin next year. In its first nearly half-decade, the program has developed partnerships with companies and nonprofits ranging from local food shelves to Target, Cargill and Best Buy.
In VANTAGE, students spend half of their school day on location in their selected area of focus, and make a commitment to the program for the year. Students study the unique needs of the corporate partner and engage with mentors and project managers as they learn about project-driven work environments.
Students are expected to meet the standards for professional conduct while on location and benefit from the daily interactions with employees that support the partnership. In addition to the partner-directed work of the project teams, students gain a deep understanding of the partner's corporate mission and learn about the field of study — something that allows them to explore possible career routes before entering college and spending valuable tuition dollars.
Even if they do not decide to pursue a career in their VANTAGE field, many students have reported that the "soft skills" they learn in the program, including how to write a business email and how to dress professionally, are advantages they will be able to apply to any work environment.
Superintendent Dennis Petersen said that the cost per student of the VANTAGE program differs only slightly from the cost per student outside the program. Teachers also stated during the discussion that students who sometimes struggle in traditional classrooms have thrived in Vantage, which allows them to pursue their passions and learn skills that are applicable to the workforce.
As students in Minnetonka's Chinese and Spanish immersion programs reach high school, they will have the opportunity to apply their language skills with company partners should they enter the Vantage program, expanding the experience to a global one.