05/03/2013 04:39 pm ET Updated Jul 03, 2013

Education to Employment: N'awlins Style

By Alison Schmitt, 2012 Venture for America Fellow

Mardi Gras, jazz, gumbo, education. While just 8 years ago these words might not have belonged in the same sentence, New Orleans, formerly known more for its bars than its classrooms, has become a poster child for education reform since Hurricane Katrina. The school system has been restructured, charter schools have exploded across the city, and there has been measurable forward progress.

According to the Brookings Institution, the city's Recovery School District is currently topping the country's charts for school choice and competition. But what will happen when these students graduate and enter the workforce? Is Louisiana equipped to align its diverse industries with the current skillsets of its emerging young workers? Luckily, the educational renaissance has spurred innovative business models that are bridging the gap between education and employment.

Diving into this idea of education as it relates to workforce development, on a statewide level, Louisiana Economic Development (LED)'s FastStart program has been ranked #1 in the country for workforce training for its innovative recruitment, training, and placement model that tailors student skill sets to employer needs. In New Orleans itself, non-profits such as Café Reconcile and Liberty's Kitchen have emerged to close the gap between education and employment by working with at-risk youth between the ages of 16 and 24 who are unemployed or out of school. Through an intensive program, these two organizations teach practical culinary and restaurant service skills, as well as financial literacy, to their cohort of students. These job skills improve future employability and provide a path to further education certifications (such as the GED).

Since moving to New Orleans last August as a member of Venture for America's inaugural fellowship class, I have received firsthand insight into Louisiana's booming education sector through the strategy and management consulting company I work for, EMH Strategy. EMH specializes in developing growth strategies and managing expansion projects for our clients, which often includes helping them raise capital to fund their expansion. We're committed to helping companies and non-profits in the Gulf South reach their full potential and become industry leaders, because with more capital and optimized operations, these companies are then able to hire more workers and keep New Orleans' and Louisiana's business ecosystem strong. We've had the privilege to work with both Café Reconcile and Sankofa CDC in developing growth strategies for expansion, and as these organizations scale, understanding the path that students will take from the classroom to employment is crucial to their mission and long-term impact on the community.

It is clear that Louisiana is making forward strides toward solving the education to employment crisis. But where does Venture for America fit in? How does VFA support this educational renaissance taking New Orleans by storm?

1. By sending Fellows to work directly in Ed Tech startups
VFA sends its Fellows to work at startups across a variety of industries, and the educational sector is no exception. By placing talented Fellows in Ed Tech startups like Kickboard in New Orleans, VFA can help these organizations grow and increase their impact. Similarly, by sending Fellows to work at professional service companies--like EMH--that help non-profits, schools, and companies in the educational space grow, VFA indirectly helps education-focused organizations become more effective at meeting their goals.

2. By connecting Fellows to education incubators like 4.0 Schools
New Orleans is home to many entrepreneurial hubs and incubators. One incubator in the education space is 4.0 Schools, a magnet for the country's top education reformers to experiment and ideate in its design lab. VFA Fellows have engaged with 4.0 through attending pitch nights, networking events, and Essentials, a daylong opportunity for ideation and innovation. By exposing Fellows to such an exciting hotspot for creative thinking, VFA is paving the way for collaborative community engagement.

3. By encouraging Fellows to start their own initiatives
In addition to supporting its Fellows in their company placements, VFA also encourages personal projects that have a community impact. Four Fellows from the Class of 2012 are currently piloting Startup Effect, an after-school program to teach middle school students entrepreneurial and critical thinking skills. By supporting such initiatives, VFA can further increase its commitment to education reform in cities like New Orleans and Detroit.

Investing in education today leads not only to more jobs, but also to higher quality jobs. High School or College graduation is no longer a satisfactory goal for today's students--there needs to be a better alignment of skills in order to close the gap between Louisiana's industries and emerging young workers. Venture for America wants to create new jobs - 100,000, in fact, by the year 2025. In order to meet this goal in cities like New Orleans, the new generation of workers must be equipped with the skills they need to successfully enter Louisiana's workforce. Luckily, the city's diverse mix of non-profits, state programs, and entrepreneurial ventures, and the dedicated, industrious people working at those organizations, are working hard to make this a reality.

Alison Schmitt is a member of the Venture for America Class of 2012 and currently works at EMH Strategy, a boutique consulting firm in New Orleans. To support Venture for America Fellows and their initiatives, such as Startup Effect in New Orleans and Detroit, visit or attend the Venture for America Summer Celebration on May 30th.