A teen boy uses equipment to cut a metal pole in a career and technical education class.


Over the past 50 years, Roy Spence has been the creative force behind famous marketing campaigns — “Don’t Mess With Texas” among them — and has developed advertising for brands such as Southwest Airlines, Wal-Mart, the PGA Tour, and the U.S. Air Force.

Now he’s turning his attention to schools to help students “make it” once they graduate.

The 74-year-old Spence, one of the co-founders of the Austin-based advertising firm GSD&M, started the Make It Movement, a nonprofit digital marketing initiative focusing on the jobs and professions that students can enter without necessarily going to college or earning a bachelor’s degree. Already in place in schools in Austin and Central Texas, Spence plans to roll out the program across the state this year and nationally in 2024.

“Not everyone needs a two-year or a four-year degree to be financially successful,” he says. “I want us to show middle school and high school students that there is a whole world of high-skill, high-income careers out there that they don’t know about, and I believe that the way we can do that is through marketing.”

No qualified applicants

Before he became the lead consultant for the Make It Movement, Isaac Torres spent a decade working in higher education and with nonprofits on community engagement programs focused on college access. He became tired of the “overwhelming narrative” that high school graduates “must obtain a four-year bachelor’s degree or you’ll be out of luck.”

“The thought was the more degrees you have the more money you were going to make, so there was a concerted effort to push everyone toward those degrees,” Torres says, noting that only 45% of high school graduates obtain a bachelor’s degree by age 25. “We thought that was the pathway to prosperity, but we know now that that hasn’t worked.”

Spence’s idea for the Make It Movement started in 2018, when he was on the speaker circuit talking about his work with the Purpose Institute, a nonprofit that helps organizations and leaders find and fulfill their purpose. Business leaders complained over and over that they could not get qualified applicants for positions that paid well and did not necessarily require a four-year or advanced degree.

“This was before COVID, and it was during a time when we wondered if there was anything we could agree on in this country,” Spence says. “And we all agree that every parent wants their child to be successful. But the parents may not have the information, the schools may not have the manpower and the tools, and the employers may not have the knowledge about how to get the information out there to these kids to help them find career pathways that play to their strengths.

“Everyone wants the same thing. They just haven’t marketed it. And that’s where we come in.”

In a series of focus groups with students about their future careers, Torres and Spence found three common themes:

  • Students, especially in rural and low-income communities, aren’t aware of the variety of careers they can access.
  • Students need access to resources about the careers that are available in their communities, regions, and states.
  • Mentors are needed to help introduce students to possible careers.

Students in Texas must choose a career pathway in either eighth or ninth grade, and 80% pick “multidisciplinary” or undecided, Torres says. That’s an opportunity, he notes, for direct marketing to parents who can in turn influence their child’s choices.

“This is an opportunity to reframe the narrative about what life can be after high school in the 21st century,” Torres says. “Through marketing, we can help students and their families understand that there are multiple pathways — professionalized technical education, dual credit, skilled trades, community colleges — that they can select from and then engage them about what these pathways mean.”

The wow and the how

From those initial focus groups, Spence and Torres developed a website — www.makeitmovement.org — designed to help students discover the different types of careers and positions that are available, along with the skills required and what they can pay. Short videos spotlighting careers are being made to share on social media platforms (TikTok and Instagram) as well as YouTube.

In its initial phase, Torres and Spence have developed partnerships with Austin Community College, the Texas Association of Builders, the United Away, American Youthworks, and other organizations.

“What we tell our partners is we can provide the ‘wow’ with slick and engaging content, and they provide the ‘how’ by using that content as a jumping off point to discuss the careers they have to offer,” Torres says. “It takes partnerships to make this work. But we are convinced we can make it happen.”

Spence, a natural storyteller who has worked with several former United States presidents on fundraising PSAs following 9/11 and hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, knows that the Make It Movement does not have the glamour of some of his earlier work. But in many ways, he feels it is just as important as anything he’s ever done.

“Growing up, my mother was a civics teacher, but I was a poor student in school,” he says. “She told me at one point, ‘I don’t want you to spend another second of your life trying to be average at something you’re bad at. I want you to spend the rest of your life becoming great at what you’re good at. And then I want you to use that skill to help other people. So that’s what we’re doing here. We’re using marketing as a force for good.”

Glenn Cook (glenncook117@gmail.com), a contributing editor to American School Board Journal, is a freelance writer and photographer in Northern Virginia. He also spent five years as a communications director for a North Carolina school district.

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2020 State of the Association

Full of challenge and change, 2020 was like no other year. NSBA's State of the Association provides a snapshot of the association's advocacy and member services work as well as our ongoing transformation.