Today's students are tomorrow's workforce

Earlier this week, I served as a facilitator at a gathering just outside of Washington, DC, called the Young Professionals Conference.

Earlier this week, I served as a facilitator at a gathering just outside of Washington, DC, called the Young Professionals Conference.Over 800 Maryland high school juniors participated in the event. These are motivated kids – exploring paths to success on such career tracks as advanced engineering, broadcast media and interactive technologies, biosciences, hospitality, and information technology. What I saw there was astounding, and it got me to thinking about the future of our industry and finding and developing top talent to take it to places we haven't gone yet.

This conclave and programs like it are serving as models and test-beds for the workforce of tomorrow. The PR field (as well as our brother and sister industries like advertising, marketing, and design) should aspire to have a seat at the table, too, because we need to be able to recruit the best and brightest talent from the same pool of motivated students from around the country.

The lead sponsor of the event and the Young Professionals program is a small nonprofit, the Montgomery County Business Roundtable for Education (MCBRE). Its mission is to connect classroom learning to the workplace and to devise ways to close the “achievement gap” between students of different races and economic backgrounds.

How do they do that? In its 10 years of existence, MCBRE has served as a vital link between the DC-area business community and the Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) system. The results of that partnership have been impressive.

MCBRE-sponsored events and programs, in close coordination and collaboration with the MCPS and its dynamic superintendent, Dr. Jerry Weast, have been so successful that the partnership was the subject of a recent Harvard Business School case study. In addition, over the past year, MCPS was awarded the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award for excellence and was a finalist for the prestigious Broad Foundation Prize for Urban Education. Clearly, Dr. Weast and his team of nearly 12,000 educators are doing something right.

And the results have paid other dividends. This year, the MCPS system was judged to be the top school district in the nation, with the highest graduation rate (90%) and the highest SAT score averages (1653).

Montgomery County, MD is one of those rare areas in the country where almost every nationality, ethnicity, and language in the world is represented. Located just north of the borderline between Washington, DC, and Maryland, the diversity of the county – both in terms of demographics, as well as economic disparity – puts a heavy burden on the public school system, which is comprised of over 130 elementary schools, almost 40 middle schools, and 25 high schools. Every year, the school system is responsible for meeting the educational needs of nearly 145,000 students in order to prepare them for the world beyond high school.

For many, that may mean going to college, but for a large segment of students, it may also mean going straight from high school into the workforce. MCPS and MCBRE programs are helping ensure students are well equipped with the right tools and training to follow whatever path they choose.

So, what does this nice story about a well-meaning public-private partnership mean to you and me? Several things.

First, when it's a true collaboration, these partnerships can really work. That means breaking out of a static benefactor-charity mindset and adopting a more dynamic, two-way alliance.

Second, the best practices that come from successful initiatives like the MCBRE-MCPS partnership are scalable – not only to the state and regional level, but also at the national level, to literally hundreds of school districts around the country.

Finally, a partnership like this has the ability to impact students in the most important way – getting them inspired and ready for college or the workforce – and that benefits the individual student as well as the partner companies who need skilled and trainable workers.

Writ large, that will result in improving our country's competitiveness and raising the standard of living for Americans of all walks of life.

Robert Tappan, a former senior official at the US Department of State, is president of The Tappan Group, a public affairs firm based in the Washington, DC area. His column looks at issues advocacy and related public affairs topics. He can be reached at

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