Ready to Learn, Ready to Work in Salem-Keizer

The Salem Area Chamber of Commerce launched the Ready to Learn-Ready to Work (RTL-RTW) program in partnership with the Salem-Keizer School District and E3 (Employers for Education Excellence) in January 2007. This program recently received national recognition and was one of the program highlights for the U.S. Chamber Institute.

RTL-RTW helps high school students meet career-related learning standards and develop skills they need to succeed in the workforce or in college. The program focuses on matching businesses in the community one-on-one with high school students before they graduate, so students can learn what is really being required by employers in the region.

Since its inception, 7,473 students have been affected by RTL-RTW. The local business community has spent more than 780 volunteer hours in classrooms, focusing on workforce development. More than 100 local businesses are actively participating in work-based training activities like job shadowing, mock interviews, internships, workplace tours and classroom presentations. Kathy Moore, of the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce, said in an interview, “What has been an extraordinary experience for the Chamber is the fast and phenomenal growth of the program.”

Mike McLaran, CEO of the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce, commented that the business leadership is what makes this program special. “There are few programs where business really drives the process and outcomes,” he said.

Another unique factor is that the Chamber is very careful about selecting the right people to run the program. McLaran added, “We have ensured that the individuals running our program have their own personal experience in the private sector appropriately mixed with their connections and understanding of the school system and have the necessary skills, attitude and passion to achieve excellence.”

RTL-RTW is considered a unique opportunity for Marion County high school students. Oregon Superintendent of Public Instruction Susan Castillo is among those who have praised RTL-RTW. She stated earlier this year, “This program is equipping students with workforce skills and helping them to develop visions for the future.” But Salem-Keizer is not the only area placing a high importance on graduating high school students who are ready for a job or college. Parents, employers, colleges and communities statewide want students to develop good work skills.

This statewide drive for better-skilled students is reflected in the new graduation requirements adopted by the State Board of Education in January 2007 that focus on career-related skills. Now, before being able to graduate, students must show they have the necessary skills to get a good job or to be successful in college. Students will need to demonstrate abilities like problem solving, teamwork and personal management skills by developing an education plan in their freshman year in high school. They also will need to keep track of their internships and any other career-related experience and activities they complete while in high school.

However, an important point being overlooked by the State Board of Education is that it can create mandates to improve work readiness among high school graduates, but the actual service of helping the students is currently being successfully imparted by private business-led initiatives like the Ready to Learn-Ready to Work program, rather than by the public school system itself.

The issue here is not putting down government-led efforts in workforce development and starting a government-versus-private-sector debate. The recent extensive newspaper discussions on the workforce crisis in Oregon is a sign that everybody””students, workers and employers””want a solution to this impending problem and not one more debate.

In Salem we have a private sector-led program that effectively works both for high school students and businesses. Chambers of Commerce in other parts of Oregon, like Medford and Eugene, have been carefully observing this program for some time. Ready to Learn-Ready to Work is becoming a model for other parts of the state. This is the kind of workforce training solution we are all looking for.

Sreya Sarkar is Director of the Asset Ownership Project at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s premier public policy research center.