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Drones are cool, but workforce pathways like this one are the game changer

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  • Recently @zipline @ncpublicschools announced a direct pathway to employment for high school graduates in NC. Drones are cool. But workforce pathways like this one are the game changer. #nced

Across all the lines of difference and across all the regions of North Carolina, support for workforce pathways continues to run wide and deep.

You can see it in the broadscale support for myFutureNC‘s attainment goal and the N.C. Department of Public Instruction’s Portrait of a Graduate. Both initiatives recently have attracted national attention.

Schools are expected to provide students with a pathway to the workforce — you’ve heard leaders say enlist, enroll, employ — and North Carolinians continue to want our schools to prepare students for life.

What is Zipline?

As just one of many examples of a direct pathway to employment following high school graduation, DPI recently announced a partnership with Zipline, the world’s largest autonomous delivery service — known more widely as drones.

According to a press release, as the drone industry continues its rapid expansion, this new partnership is creating exciting career prospects for North Carolina’s high school students in what’s academically and professionally known as Uncrewed Ariel Systems (UAS).

“Zipline is a pioneering autonomous delivery service that operates on a global scale. Their mission is to provide life-saving medical supplies to those in remote or hard-to-reach areas through the use of cutting-edge drone technology. With a track record of innovation and a commitment to excellence, Zipline is shaping the future of UAS operations.”

— N.C. DPI press release

“The demand for highly skilled UAS operators and flight operations professionals is on the rise,” says the press release, “and this one-of-a-kind partnership provides an innovative pathway program aimed at preparing students for professional UAS careers at Zipline.”

Here you can see in real time how many miles have been flown, how many deliveres made, and how many items have been delivered by Zipline. Take a guess before reading on.

The numbers update automatically, but the day I checked the answers were an astonishing 78,026,310 miles flown, 1,095,412 deliveries made, and 11,103,207 items delivered across eight countries and four continents.

The company has been making deliveries in North Carolina since 2022, according to its website, and located its U.S. operations center in downtown Concord in 2023.

Zipline has two ways it delivers goods: a long-range system, Platform 1, and its next-generation home delivery system, Platform 2, according to this fact sheet and chart comparing the platforms.

Zipline works with governments, nonprofits, and health care systems as well as companies like Walmart, Pfizer, and Toyota Tsusho. In North Carolina, Zipline is known for working with Novant Health, Magellan Rx Management, and Cardinal Health, according to this article in Forbes.

What does this mean for students in North Carolina?

To qualify, students must graduate high school, successfully complete the UAS pathway program, meet GPA requirements, and provide a written letter of recommendation from a faculty member.

“The goal of Career and Technical Education (CTE) in North Carolina is to open doors to successful and fulfilling careers for our students through exposure and helping them develop academic, technical and durable skills to use in the workplace,” says Trey Michael, NCDPI’s director of CTE. “This partnership prepares students for a viable career after graduation in a field that is rapidly expanding globally.”

Beginning in the 2024-25 school year, this workforce pathway will be available at more than 60 high schools across the state that offer drone technology courses in their CTE departments, where students study the fundamentals of drones, legal requirements, simulations, drone flight training, mapping and more, according to the press release. “Qualifying students are guaranteed an interview with Zipline upon completion,” it says.

Joseph Marshall, director of flight operations at Zipline, is optimistic about this collaborative initiative. “Zipline and NCDPI have set essential program requirements that will offer high school graduates cutting-edge aviation opportunities right after graduation,” he says. “We are confident that the pathway program will attract exceptional candidates and contribute to the advancement of the UAS industry.”

DPI’s press release says this program sets the stage for high school graduates to enter “a dynamic field with tremendous growth potential.”

As the UAS industry evolves, this partnership between DPI and Zipline promises to be a game-changer.

It’s a partnership you might expect to see with the community college system. But I’m counting on more partnerships like this one with DPI given North Carolina’s cross-partisan interest in workforce pathways.

Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC.