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Rasha Rehman headshot

How NAF and American Express Prepare Students for the Future of Work

By Rasha Rehman
American Express

Critics often point out that current educational models are failing to prepare high school students for the workforce and its future. In fact, one third of young people around the world reported that their college or university fell short in equipping them with skills required for their desired roles. And, evidence suggests at least 79 percent of youth have developed skills outside of their formal education to obtain the roles they wanted. American Express, however, says one its partnerships helps to tackle this problem.

A long, successful partnership with American Express

There are numerous challenges to ensuring effective skill development and gainful employment for younger generations. To that end, in partnership with American Express, the nonprofit NAF says it offers a solution. The mission of this 35-year-old partnership is to bring a more connected and holistic high school experience to students in preparation for the future of work. To date, over 90 percent of NAF academy students reported being ready for the workforce due to the work-based learning experiences acquired at their respective academy. And till now, American Express has invested more than $24 million in NAF with the aim of ensuring U.S. students are career ready.

"American Express does step in and help to make sure that we are able to do everything we can to support our students as best we can and they've been just a tremendous partner," said Lisa Dughi, NAF’s CEO, in an interview with TriplePundit. "The reason the partnership has lasted for 35 years is their ability to continue to work with us and ensure that at the end of the day student success and student outcome is the driver, nothing else." 

Additionally, the American Express Foundation supported NAF's Academy of Hospitality & Tourism (AOHT), which currently is present in 18 states and hosts close to 19,000 students.

The importance of building an interconnected educational experience

Dughi explained to 3p the integrated approach NAF adopts when helping students envision their future careers. NAF creates curricula that fits into a student’s goals as they are learning both specialty core subjects. She described to 3p the integrated approach with the example of a student reading Life of Pi in an language art class, building the boat featured in the book in engineering class and brainstorming which materials would be available during that period of time during a history class. 

Misguided career expectations are among the challenges to achieving success for teenagers. Data reveals that 47 percent of 15-year-old boys and 53 percent of 15-year-old girls expect to work in one of only 10 jobs by the age of 30. And, teenagers from disadvantaged backgrounds often have narrower interests and lower levels of career concentration compared to teenagers in countries with strong career guidance and education of other career fields. “…the results show that the career expectations of young people have changed little over that period. If anything, they have become more concentrated in fewer occupations,” wrote the authors of the 2020 OECD study.

These expectations are a result of lack of resources, knowledge about careers and skills and adults’ attitudes towards youth’s abilities. In addition, current educational models generally do not emphasize team-based projects and problem solving, and are often underfunded or understaffed. 

More direction, knowledge and opportunities are needed to build an interconnected educational experience. And, Dughi told 3p that the experience offered by NAF is crucial for the success of high school students because it enables "real world experiences.” According to Dughi, the majority of students don't acquire these experiences in traditional high schools. Yet, by obtaining an education at NAF, students can envision what their future would look like, which specific skills and capabilities are required accordingly and what leadership looks like. In addition, Dughi explained that students exit the NAF experience with existing relationships with businesses and different types of work-based learning experiences such as internships. And, this allows for multiple career trajectories. 

Preparing students for the future of work is a compelling business investment

There are many benefits for students who engage with the work force while still in high school. In fact, students who combine part-time employment with full-time studies are likely to acquire higher wages, opportunities to pursue apprenticeships and have greater contentment with their career growth. 

Students aren’t the only beneficiaries of work-based learning experiences. Companies who invest in its materialization benefit as well. "When we do work with partners, this isn't just about philanthropy, this really is a business investment in the futures of the companies that we work with,” said Dughi. She further explained to 3p that NAF is building a “diverse talent pipeline” of professionals who can become future leaders and solve problems of companies. These problems include the inability to find certain skills, talents and diversity in leadership roles. 

So far, this non-profit’s strategy is proving fruitful. According to Dughi, NAF has been receiving positive feedback from students and their families for its academies. Specifically, students have shared with NAF how transformational their work-based learning experiences have been for them and their families. Dughi stressed the benefits of these experiences which includes the opportunity to be valued by adults, be paid for their work, and support and mentorship opportunities. And this creates a sense of pride and strength for students. 

"We want to make sure that every kid has the opportunity and access to a successful future," said Dughi. "We need to do more, and we need more partnerships and investment in this kind of work to make sure that we are able to create that opportunity for many, many more students."

Image credit: Yan Krukov via Pexels

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect American Express' cumulative investment in NAF. 

Rasha Rehman headshot

Rasha is a freelance journalist with experience in external communications and publicity. She is a Ryerson School of Journalism graduate and has worked on various media and communication campaigns in film, home development and the nonprofit sector. Rasha is passionate about storytelling for impact, whether she focuses on social enterprise, transforming our food system or making the business world more inclusive.

Read more stories by Rasha Rehman