Jennifer Mellor and Mike Huckins on How Chambers of Commerce Can Get Involved in Accelerated Pathways

Key Points

  • It is critical that students are able to see themselves in pathways.

  • There are  a lot of students who aren’t opting into dual enrollment because they don’t see themselves as going to college.

On this episode of the Getting Smart Podcast Shawnee Caruthers is joined by Jennifer Mellor, Chief Innovation Officer at the Phoenix Chamber Foundation and Mike Huckins, Senior Vice President of Public Affairs and IT Operations at the Greater Phoenix Chamber. Together, Jennifer and Mike are working on ElevateEdAZ, a remarkable initiative by the Arizona design team that’s revolutionizing education and workforce development in the state, is working to be at the intersection of key stakeholders to provide real opportunities for learners. Their tireless efforts have led to scaled pathways for students to earn an associate’s degree in their 13th year, with a focus on high-demand industries like advanced manufacturing. By fostering collaboration among local employers, educators, and policymakers, ElevateEdAZ is creating transformative opportunities for students.

With the support of a $750,000 grant from the city of Phoenix, ElevateEdAZ is set to expand its impact by reaching more schools and students. The funding will enable broader access to work-based learning experiences, internships, job shadows, and mock interviews, preparing students for success in the modern workforce. 

The Phoenix Chamber Foundation is leading this Arizona Accelerate ED cohort, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Accelerate ED is built on the idea that high schools can provide early access to quality higher education in ways that incorporate work-connected learning and have long-term benefits for students. This initiative helps state-based groups plan and build accelerated pathways between K-12 education, postsecondary education, and careers. 


Introduction to the Digital Credential Summit Insights

Shawnee Caruthers: You’re listening to the Getting Smart Podcast, I’m Shawnee Caruthers. At the 2024 Digital Credential Summit in New Orleans, Louisiana the message was clear: by 2030, there will be 80 million unfilled jobs as skills become the new currency and school systems work alongside industry to include more real-world learning opportunities for learners. The Venn diagram circles of secondary, post-secondary, and industry continue to intersect. ElevateEdAZ, a remarkable initiative by the Arizona design team that’s revolutionizing education and workforce development in the state, is working to be at the intersection of key stakeholders to provide real opportunities for learners. Their tireless efforts have led to scalable pathways for students to earn an associate’s degree in their 13th year with a focus on high-demand industries like advanced manufacturing.

By fostering collaboration among local employers, educators, and policymakers, ElevateEdAZ is creating transformative opportunities for students. With the support of a $750,000 grant from the City of Phoenix, ElevateEdAZ is set to expand its impact by reaching more schools and students. The funding will enable broader access to work-based learning experiences, internships, job shadows, and mock interviews, preparing students for success in the modern workforce. The Phoenix Chamber Foundation is leading this Arizona AccelerateEd cohort, supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. AccelerateEd is built on the idea that high schools can provide early access to quality higher education in ways that incorporate work-connected learning and have long-term benefits for students. This initiative helps state-based groups plan and build accelerated pathways between K-12 education, post-secondary education, and careers.

To help think about bridging the gap between education and industry and fostering a new generation of skilled professionals, I am joined by Jennifer Mellor, Chief Innovation Officer at the Phoenix Chamber Foundation, and Mike Huckins, Senior Vice President of Public Affairs and IT Operations at the Greater Phoenix Chamber.

Jennifer, Mike, so happy to see you all. Welcome to the podcast.

Jennifer Mellor: Thanks so much for having us.

Mike Huckins: Yeah, really appreciate it. Great to be here.

Shawnee Caruthers: Yeah, thank you. There’s a lot going on in Arizona and just across the country around really thinking about what is the best path for students and how do they get there, how do they navigate their way through, you know, what happens after high school. You all are doing a lot of this work at the chamber. So Jennifer, can you tell us about the chamber and what the organization’s mission is?

The Chamber’s Role in Bridging Education and Industry

Jennifer Mellor: Sure. So we have the Greater Phoenix Chamber, which is really focused, it’s a membership organization really focused on creating a business-friendly environment in Arizona. And so a lot of that work is around public policy and advocacy, which Mike leads, as well as economic development and business connectivity. Several years ago, we launched the Greater Phoenix Chamber Foundation, which is a little bit more community-focused, really trying to ensure that our community is prepared and that we have the workforce that we need for the future.

Mike Huckins: I would just say Jennifer did a great job of describing the two entities, and they really work hand in hand. On the programmatic side, which Jennifer houses most of on the foundation side, along with some of the policy-oriented goals that we take care of over on the chamber side, I know we’re going to get into it, you know, more in just a few minutes. But the perfect example was the dual enrollment appropriation we were able to get from the state legislature, which helped supplement the great work that Jennifer and her team had already done through private dollars on the foundation side.

Shawnee Caruthers: And in the intro, we talked about the project that you all are working on, ElevateEdAZ. How did the chamber get involved in this project?

Jennifer Mellor: Yes, so we started an economic development initiative about ten years ago, really focused on business retention and expansion. And as part of that work, we were going out and meeting with industries. And the one thing that we continue to hear time and time again is, “We don’t have the workforce we need to grow and expand our business.” So we knew that if we were really going to make an impact on economic development and business growth, that we had to help employers come together to meet those needs. And so as a result, we launched the foundation back in 2016 and really brought together industry leaders around different workforce sectors. So, for example, we have a healthcare workforce collaborative that worked and identified a need to train specialty nurses. And we worked with community colleges and actually created two new specialty nursing programs.

And then through our collaboration with Mike and his team on the policy side, we were actually able to get the state to provide an appropriation to the community colleges to build the simulation labs and the infrastructure needed to actually support that program. So a lot of our work on the foundation side for several years was focused on our post-secondary partners, primarily the Maricopa community colleges. And what we recognized is that we needed to bring that work down into our secondary system. And what we found is we have really great CTE programs at all of our school partners, but they’re not necessarily aligned to workforce demand. And so we’ve been working through ElevateEdAZ, we’ve actually been working with 20 high schools throughout Maricopa County that covers five different school districts and a charter network.

And we’re actually working with the schools grassroots. We have college and career coaches that are embedded at each campus, working with those schools to try to increase the number of students that are pursuing high-wage, high-demand CTE pathways and then are trying to improve outcomes for those students through internships, job shadows, early college credit, industry-recognized credentials. And then we’re working systematically with the school districts to also try to improve processes and outcomes for our districts. And then we’re able to bring that up to the big picture strategy and think about things that are working and not working within our system and things that we can change legislatively or do on behalf of the state that will improve outcomes for students.

Challenges and Strategies in Policy and Workforce Development

Shawnee Caruthers: Mike, Jennifer referenced a lot of great things that you all have been able to accomplish, but I know, and our listeners know because they, I’m sure, try to accomplish some of these things as well. It is not easy, and there are a set of challenges that come along with those things that you have to navigate. And especially from a policy perspective, what are some of those challenges that you all had to navigate in order to get to some of the success factors that Jennifer mentioned? And then how did you go along? How did you go about doing that?

Mike Huckins: Yeah, I would say probably the biggest obstacle to accomplishing some of the goals that Jennifer outlined is just the whole, not fight is probably the right word, but the whole discussion, maybe at the legislature and beyond, about education funding. So I think it’s always a debacle between, when you get a bunch of groups, especially the education groups and others in a room to say, “Hey, we need this much funding, this much funding for X, Y, and Z.” Policymakers have sometimes a hard time understanding what that’s for. They seem to think, not all, but some seem to think it just goes into a big black hole and disappears and there’s no real outcome.

So I think what with some of the items that Jennifer described, we were able to demonstrate to them, one, there are real workforce outcomes with these dollars, whether it be the nursing cohort that Jennifer mentioned earlier or dual enrollment, tying it back to workforce was, I think, the biggest positive thing we could have done to help the legislators understand that, hey, this isn’t going to a black hole. These are actually going to provide real jobs. Whether they be, as Jennifer mentioned, whether they be a CTE program, somebody going on to a community college and getting a certificate of higher education through there, or if they want to go onto university, that’s fine. But the ultimate goal is to get us, the workers we need.

Shawnee Caruthers: And I know that you all have tried a number of things, including employer convening, surveys, series of workforce collaboratives, in order to continue to show that impact and to make those connections for all of your key stakeholders. Jennifer or Mike, what did you all learn from utilizing those different strategies, and how did you inform this approach?

Jennifer Mellor: Yes, I think the biggest thing that we learned is that when we can bring industry together and they stop competing for talent, competing against each other, and actually start working together, we can come up with some really effective strategies. And it takes some time to develop that trust and that partnership and that collaborative spirit. But once we’re able to do it, the impacts are so significant. So just yesterday, we actually hosted a convening, and it was all of our hospital partners throughout Maricopa County, and were talking about, like, real specific workforce challenges and workforce needs. And our facilitator actually came in from another community, and they were super impressed that we had people from different employers that were sitting at the table together really being open and honest and communicative.

And when we can do that, we can have, again, just really great outcomes, and we can start to lift the boats for all.

Focusing on Manufacturing: A Strategic Choice for Arizona

Shawnee Caruthers: You all landed on manufacturing as an industry that you all were going to promote in order to, for this particular initiative. What made you all land on advanced manufacturing specifically? And what were some of the other credentials or industries that were on the table? You mentioned nursing, but what are maybe some others?

Jennifer Mellor: Sure. So Arizona is leading the way in manufacturing jobs. It seems like every day we have a new announcement of a new company coming in, adding different manufacturing jobs. When we started looking at our high school partners, there was one manufacturing program serving 24 students, and we’re talking about 60,000 plus jobs just in the semiconductor space. We need more programs at the high school level to meet that need. And so when were able to articulate that demand to our high school partners, they one and saw, okay, yes, we see the connectivity to the labor demand and the need. Now, we’ve been working with them on, okay, how do we start to build out those pathways? Those CTE pathways don’t currently exist, at least for semiconductor, and so it’s starting from scratch and building that pathway.

And we also have a huge misperception of what manufacturing jobs look like. And that’s not just with our students, it’s with their parents and with our administrators. So we’ve had to do a lot of work to change that perception. And it’s been really interesting. As part of this work, we’ve also been able to bring in some of our community partners. So the community colleges and also our career technical education district. Both of them have come to the table as a collaborative partner. Knowing that again, if we can, you know, that there’s enough work for everyone, and if we can figure this out together again, we can lift all ships.

Shawnee Caruthers: Mike, I’m curious what policy shifts you all had to make in terms of providing more access to manufacturing opportunities. Because now you’re going to have more credentials that you’re going to have to offer and make sure that there’s funding for students to be able to take advantage of those types of things and maybe even some requirements around what students have exposure to, even maybe before high school. So did you all make any policy shifts around that particular industry in preparation for the work that was happening at secondary and beyond?

Mike Huckins: Yeah, I think it was a perfect example of public and private partnership, one, to bring TSMC here to Arizona, and two, to help expand out intel, which already had a significant presence here in the state to help them expand out their facility over in Mesa. Also, as Jennifer mentioned, the demand is just through the roof. It’s interesting that we’re doing this podcast today when actually the president is in town to just announce that they are going to provide intel with about $8 billion of direct funding through the ChIPS act to help them get their expansion off the ground. A lot of that money, frankly, is going to be needed for workforce, as Jennifer mentioned, both at, you know, the community college level down into high schools, because frankly, a lot of this training can be done in high school.

They might have to go, you know, for a little bit of specialty training afterwards. But as much as they can get done in high school that I think that benefits everybody. These are, as Jennifer mentioned, these are high-paying jobs that may have a little bit of a stigma around them. I think the interest will be there, and now it’ll just be sort of making sure that government priorities, along with the private sector partners, are aligned to get these folks into the jobs that we need them for, whether beyond the fab line or, you know, or beyond.

Shawnee Caruthers: Yeah, my television stays on CNN. So I did happen to walk past and saw that President Biden was in your state with intel doing exactly what you said. So it’s such a timely conversation, and hopefully it begins to change the narrative around, like you said, the stigma around all of the great opportunities that are existing in a manufacturing industry and beyond. So what were the other options that were on the table? If you didn’t do manufacturing, what would you have chosen?

Jennifer Mellor: Honestly, I don’t even think that there were other industries that were up for grabs. But because there was such a limited number of manufacturing programs in existence, it was just instantly we, all of our partners agreed that this is where we need to focus.

Shawnee Caruthers: As we think about manufacturing and we think about just work in general, but let’s focus specifically on manufacturing. And we know and what it looks like in 2024 is not what it’s going to look like in 2030. And beyond. What are you all doing to prepare not only yourselves but the Arizona landscape and students and the schools, etc., to think beyond what advanced manufacturing is now? And so that they are ready to pivot as necessary as the job continues to shift, but the opportunities remain plentiful.

Jennifer Mellor: So I think manufacturing jobs, as any jobs, will continue to shift over time. And if we look at, you know, the jobs of yesterday were definitely not the jobs that we’re seeing today. The jobs today are much more highly technical. And I think that’s one of the challenges is in filling these job opportunities. So I think where we’ve been focused is one making sure that we’re not designing programs after one specific employer, but they’re designed with multiple employers in mind, so that if we do have an employer, for example, that maybe slows down their hiring, that those individuals can be transitioned to another employer that might be hiring at that time, and then also making sure that we have truly stackable credentials. And I think this is where the Accelerate ED work becomes so important.

But making sure that our high school students, as part of their CTE pathway, that they can get an industry-recognized credential, but that they continue their education beyond that. So step one might be that credential. Step two should be their associate’s degree. And if they want to continue their education, we want to make sure that associate is transferring into a related bachelor’s degree.

Shawnee Caruthers: And so, Mike, as you think about the things that Jennifer just referenced in terms of the stackability of all of the different learning opportunities for students, and one of those being the dual enrollment programs, what are you all doing, from your perspective, at your level, to meet the evolving needs of the Phoenix job market to ensure that those type of opportunities, like dual credit, remain available and equitable for students?

Mike Huckins:

Yeah, I think one, and a big part of our sort of strategy now is, you know, we got the dollars in last year. That was great. But what we’re seeing now is a little bit of difficulty with getting the word out, both to students and teachers, regarding the dual enrollment opportunities, you know, specifically related to dual enrollment we provide through the bill. Would the teachers get a stipend? It’s not life-changing money, but it is money to show them they’re appreciated for their extra work to get certified in dual enrollment. And it does provide some subsidies for the kids to take these classes.

So I think part of the issue that we’re dealing with now that Jennifer’s working through now, along with her team, is really doing an education campaign to make sure that the students know that these opportunities out there, no matter which career pathway they decide to go. If it’s manufacturing, great. If it’s nursing, that’s great, too. If it’s something completely different and that they want to go into, as long as it meets the core areas of academics or through the CTE programs, then they should have that ability to do so. And frankly, down the road, it’s going to save them some money, whether they decide to go on to four-year university or the community colleges on getting those credits out of the way.

As long as everybody has that sort of base structure of what they need driving them into these specialty areas, it should be, you know, fairly, I’m oversimplifying it, but it should be fairly easy, once they have that base set of skills for whoever it may be, to sort of guide them into that next step in their career path.

Jennifer Mellor: And if I can just touch on Shawnee, I think Mike is absolutely right. Thinking about equity, especially here in Arizona, when we think about dual enrollment, I think one of our big challenges is we don’t have equitable access to dual enrollment. And especially in our rural communities, in our more affluent communities in Arizona, you’ve got a plethora of either AP or dual enrollment courses to choose from, and those could be in core academic areas or in CTE programs. But when we look at some of our other communities, we have areas where, you know, English and math are not offered as dual enrollment courses. And so one of the things that we’ve really been trying to promote is getting more teachers certified to teach those dual enrollment courses.

Shawnee Caruthers: So it sounds like that’s the start of, like, your outreach to, like you said, to make sure students and families know, what other strategies do you all employ to really ensure, like you said, for those communities that maybe have the same amount of information coming in at them constantly, what else are you all doing to ensure that’s happening? And how do families and students become eligible for ElevateEdAZ?

Jennifer Mellor: Yes, so ElevateEdAZ, we are actually working in 20 high schools throughout Maricopa County. So our footprint is fairly small in the big scheme of things. When we talk about dual enrollment, for example, we are actually doing massive pushes on our campus to try and get students dual enrollment or registered for the dual enrollment class. And our college and career coaches that are embedded on those campuses, they’re doing that work. They’re talking to the teachers, they’re talking to the students, they’re talking to their families. So we feel like we’re making good headway with our ElevateEdAZ schools. Where we are really trying to shift focus is again, just kind of more grassroots campaigns across the state.

We actually just convened a group of stakeholders to try and create some social media campaigns around dual enrollment, the benefits of dual enrollment, how to access the tuition assistance, and we’re trying to leverage partners from throughout Arizona to help us spread that word and use those social media messages to get more information out to the communities.

Shawnee Caruthers: Mike, that tuition assistance, I know you all just received that funding, but what, I guess, programs will you all be putting in place to ensure that’s sustainable? So when that kind of bucket is no longer available but that need is still there, how will you all ensure that students don’t go without.

Mike Huckins: Yeah, I think it’s a multi-year program in that the money was good for if, say, everybody applied that was eligible, it would last probably about two years. Obviously, not everyone who’s eligible is going to apply. So it’ll probably go two and a half years, maybe even three. So I  think, again, key, and, you know, the legislature is dealing with a budget deficit this year, so it was good that money that we got appropriated last year was held over. It wasn’t, it didn’t lapse back to the general fund if it wasn’t used. It was, it was housed there for, you know, however long it takes to use it. So, like I said, it’s going to take a few years for them, at least a couple years, probably three for them to get through it all. But I think the onus will be on us.

We want to continue those dollars or add more dollars down the road is to explain to lawmakers, you know, sort of the outcomes that come along with those, with those monies that were appropriated. As Jennifer mentioned, we means tested the first tranche of dollars to make it more impactful for those communities that often don’t have access to be able to afford some of these dual enrollment programs on their own. So whether that’s the case, if it’s needed again after this next round will be sort of a discussion point for us to see what communities are using it, which ones still need it?

And do we need to continue that trend or we need to say, open it up to more, just sort of statewide and say, okay, everybody’s free game, everybody gets the same shot at the target versus the more targeted approach this time around.

Jennifer Mellor: And I think the data tied to that is going to be key to show that return on investment. Last year, we actually saw a 40% increase in dual enrollment registration thanks to a lot of the push. This year, with that added funding, were able to see a 6% increase. And we also know, based on data, that students that take dual enrollment courses are more likely to enroll in post-secondary education, and they’re more likely to be successful and persevere in that post-secondary education.

Shawnee Caruthers: And with that increase in that enrollment of 40%, that means that the wraparound support that you’ll have to provide to students to ensure that they’re meeting the criteria to continue to be eligible for that funding also increases. Has that been the case for you all, that you all needed to provide more kind of wraparound services to support students?

Jennifer Mellor: So I think the thing that we’ve been really laser-focused on with ElevateEdAZ is how do we create the right systems and infrastructure to make that process easier for students and their parents. And, you know, I have two daughters now in high school, and the process to enroll for the dual enrollment credit, it’s not easy. And so we’ve been really trying to put in support and infrastructure to allow students to more successfully complete that process. And even looking at things like, could we just automatically enroll students so that we take that registration barrier out of the way?

So we also are convening a coalition to share best practices around dual enrollment and see, again, how do we remove as many of those barriers as possible so that we can try and get students, one, to see themselves as college students and see the benefit of taking dual enrollment, and two, make that process as easy as possible.

Looking Ahead: Dual Enrollment and Workforce Development Goals

Shawnee Caruthers: So, looking forward, what are the Chamber’s goals? Are plans for enhancing dual enrollment opportunities and workforce development in the greater Phoenix area?

Jennifer Mellor: Yeah. So from a programmatic standpoint, I would say, you know, continuing to remove those barriers, we’ve got a lot of barriers that are in place for students we also know that there is a perception challenge when it comes to dual enrollment, and we have a lot of students. We actually just did a couple of focus groups, and we have a lot of students that aren’t opting into dual enrollment because they don’t see themselves as going to college and that could because they can’t afford it. They just don’t see it in their future. And so they are not opting to take those dual enrollment courses because they don’t see the value down the road. Right.

And so one of the things that we’re trying to do is, through the social media campaign and marketing campaign, is ensure that students can see themselves. You know, we had one young lady in our focus group that shared, you know, her freshman and sophomore year, she didn’t think she was going to college. She didn’t think she would be successful. So she didn’t take her dual enrollment courses her junior and senior year. She saw herself as college bound. She was doing well in school, and she took those dual enrollment courses, and she’s now regretting the fact that she didn’t take them her freshman and sophomore year.

So using her voice, using that message to communicate to her peers, I think, will be critical for us to be able to change that narrative and that perception, not just with our students, but with the people that have an impact on their life, whether that be their family members or other community members.

Shawnee Caruthers: Well, I just really appreciate the way you all are being very student-centered in your approach, recognizing that a student’s needs kind of can transfer, go beyond state lines, and it may go into Missouri or wherever else, but making sure that you all have a strong systemic approach that allows students to kind of go where their journey takes them. And so through your dual enrollment program, the way that you all are making those resources available and ensuring that both students and families, community, workforce, everyone, that they’re all in conversation with each other to really solve your workforce needs, specifically around advanced manufacturing, is obviously going to be such a great economic lift for Arizona. So thank you for being here with us today to talk to us about your program.

Getting Smart Staff

The Getting Smart Staff believes in learning out loud and always being an advocate for things that we are excited about. As a result, we write a lot. Do you have a story we should cover? Email [email protected]

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