How to Become a School-to-Career Entrepreneur

FAQs about the challenge of setting up a school-to-job program.

October 24, 2005

This how-to article accompanies the feature "Not Your Father's Voc Ed: High School Classes Reinvented."

Setting up a school-to-job program is a challenge on many levels. The entire Sacramento City Unified School District (SCUSD) has only five "educational entrepreneurs" on staff, and there aren't many in other parts of California. But for those willing to do some research -- and make a few sacrifices -- the rewards are great. Here, key players in the Sacramento program answer some of the most frequently asked questions about the job.

Where do educational entrepreneurs come from?

Like most education entrepreneurs, Larry Loban was an entrepreneur in the business world first.

"I spent years in Silicon Valley and helped found a company," says Loban. (The firm was LexTech, a site helping businesses control legal costs.) "After I retired, I got bored after eight months. I went into education because we had school-to-career kids in our business, and I enjoyed working with them."

How do you find out what jobs are available in education?

The best place to start is with your state's department of education, then your local school district's Web site. Often, job openings will appear there first. Few national education job boards are updated quickly enough to get these listings before they are taken, and competition is fierce.

"If you can't find a job listing, you may need to lobby to create the position," says Mike Brunelle, director of the SCUSD's Adult, Career, and Technical Preparation Division. "First thing, contact the school district and find whoever is developing business partnerships. Then you sit down with those people and tell them, 'I know people in this field, and here's what -- and who -- I can bring to the table.'"

Though the budget outlay may be small for the district, the payoff could be enormous. "I would say to any district that says they don't have the money to pay an entrepreneur that the benefits to the kids are a hundredfold," says Brunelle. "It makes total sense educationally."

As an entrepreneur, do you support a single school or a districtwide career theme?

It can work either way. In Sacramento, Loban is an education entrepreneur handling engineering and technology for eleven small learning communities, focusing on business partnerships with all the participating schools. "In the past, entrepreneurs were focused on a particular school, and now they are working with all the high schools," says Louise Stymeist, Regional Occupational Program coordinator for the SCUSD. "What if everyone called Aerojet for something for their school? This way, if someone needs an Aerojet engineer, Larry calls them."

What does an educational entrepreneur need to qualify for the job?

"These are people with contacts in their industry," says Brunelle. Additionally, they need to develop many new contacts. Being an entrepreneur means making cold calls, dropping by business offices.

"We try to recruit people with a sales type of mentality," says Brunelle. "They also have to give great customer service. They have to create a win-win situation for both sides. You can't just plead for the school. You have to show businesses how they benefit -- tell them that, down the road, they'll have a trained workforce knocking on their doors."

What frustrations should you be prepared for?

"The hardest thing for people coming out of industry is the frustratingly slow pace art which the wheels move in an educational bureaucracy," says Brunelle. "You need lots of patience."

For entrepreneurs with an education background, the business world has its own learning curve. Teachers need to learn to speak the language of business -- to be able to explain the return on an investment in the school.

"We know businesses want to help," says Loban. "This way, they have someone to connect with. Coming from business, we value businesspeople's time and are committed to making sure that it isn't wasted."

What about the pay?

If you've been an entrepreneur in the business world, expect to take a massive pay cut: Salaries range from $40,000 to $60,000. "Education entrepreneurs are not in it for the money," says Brunelle. "They have a burning desire to work with kids and promote a real-world connection to education."

Though entrepreneurs get the full range of employment benefits, the real payoff is not found in the paycheck. "They have a tremendous sense of accomplishment connecting young people with businesspeople and seeing that relationship grow," adds Brunelle. "Seeing them get a sense of possibility in life is the real benefit."

For Loban, the payoff is watching high school students change their attitudes about learning. "We're building relevancy into education," says Loban. "We're connecting the academic experience to the kids' futures."

Don Lipper and Elizabeth Sagehorn are a freelance writers.

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