Several years removed from the height of the COVID pandemic, recent high school graduates seem to be staying away from the classroom.
In New York, the undergraduate college population dropped by nearly 12 percent from 2019 to 2023, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse. Public colleges and universities in Monroe County, which generally rely on local high school students for enrollment, dropped even more with an average 18 percent loss in that same time period.
While some forecast this trend as one with negative long-term effects on the labor market, Careal Bayo CEO and founder Ahlia Kitwana sees untapped potential in this new normal. While teaching at Monroe Community College, she witnessed many of her students having no choice but to work during a pandemic.
“They were overall, very scared and frightened. It was the peril of a disease we knew nothing about for a long time,” Kitwana recalls. “But they still needed to go work these jobs we deemed ‘essential’ back then and do what was necessary to keep their lights on.
“I noticed they already have many of the skills for flexible, higher-paying jobs,” she continues. “But there’s a disconnect between both employers and students when it comes to those other career paths besides going to get a college degree.”
For one student, a simple certification could have been the first step on a path toward a career in radiology instead of as a low-wage worker at Target, she remembers.
Based on these stories, Kitwana started Careal Bayo in 2021 as a career exploration and self-discovery program for students stuck in that situation. She has worked with students on an individual level as well as run workshops with schools in the area.
The full 12-week program at Careal Bayo explores careers by identifying what Kitwana calls students’ “Strengths and Superpowers”—transferable skills they already possess and excel at, but might not view as employable abilities. Another company Kitwana founded, Little Black Buddha, specializes in supporting established businesses through coaching, programming, and workshops centered around the “Strengths and Superpowers” concept.
Through questionnaires and conversations with a one-on-one mentor in their field of interest, students will receive a custom career plan and networking opportunities for their preferred profession.
For Kitwana, one of the most valuable aspects Careal Bayo can give participants is confidence and awareness. After completing the program, students should be able to not only identify their strengths, but also which jobs they are qualified for—which, in her experience, are in abundance.
While some high schools offered information on alternative career paths, Kitwana’s students told her, they were often added enrichment and not part of the typical high school curriculum. The focus, she learned, was instead primarily on getting into college.
According to the National Student Clearinghouse, in New York, there are nearly 1 million students under age 25 in the category of “some college, no credential.” Twenty percent of those are either Black or Latinx, students who are an important focus for Careal Bayo, as issues for traditionally underrepresented minorities are compounded.
In particular, Kitana sees a lot of potential for jobs in the health care, science, and technology fields when it comes to alternative career paths. However, changing the attitude around who should apply to those jobs can seem like an uphill battle.
“It’s a disservice to the tech industry that there is such a narrow preference for college degrees. It’s limiting the talent pool,” says Kitwana, who supports skill-based hiring.
“Do (students) really need a B.S. in electrical engineering to sell electronics?” she continues. “Yes, there is some knowledge that is a requirement, but as long as you know the basics and have a willingness to increase your understanding, a great personality is more important to you being a success in that type of job.”
The name for Careal Bayo itself draws inspiration from the Yoruba word for “joy,” signifying that there is joy in finding a career.
“It’s not necessarily a name that someone would immediately understand. It’s not straightforward,” Kitwana says. “But I think that’s fitting, because finding a career is not always a straightforward path.”
Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer and data journalist. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].