Dr. René Cantú is the founding Executive Director of Jobs for Nevada’s Graduates (J4NG), a nonprofit created by the state of Nevada to help Nevada’s youth of promise to graduate successfully and find a rewarding career pathway.
Dr. Cantú has worked in higher education as Vice President of Multicultural Affairs for Nevada State College. He has served on the board of directors of the Latin Chamber of Commerce, and in 2008, served as Vice Chair. In 2020, Dr. Cantú was elected as a Member of the Nevada State Board of Education representing Congressional District 4, and is a passionate advocate for educational opportunity for all Nevada students. He received his BFA, MFA and Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin.
Growing up as a so-called at risk student in his youth who was tracked into a non-college path, he firmly believes that students and their parents should determine how far they can go in life, and that education is the key to prosperity and a brighter future.
1) How were you selected to become the Executive Director of Jobs for Nevada’s Graduates (J4NG)?
For more than two decades, I have dedicated my life and career to opening the doors of opportunity for youth through education. In 2014, former Governor Brian Sandoval, in bipartisan partnership with the Nevada State Legislature, launched the J4NG program (formerly JAG Nevada), part of the national organization, Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG) to help increase Nevada’s high school graduation rates. At the time, I was working as the Executive Director of the Latin Chamber of Commerce Community Foundation (prior to that, I spent nearly a decade working in higher education with roles at Nevada State College and College of Southern Nevada). When I learned about the opportunity with J4NG, I felt called to return to education with an organization I felt so passionately resonated with my own values.
Two of the first board members of J4NG interviewed me for the position in February 2014 and I was selected as the founding Executive Director of J4NG, where I began employment in March 2014. I’ve been with J4NG ever since and it has truly been an honor to lead an organization that has assisted more than 18,000 students in 60 high schools across the state of Nevada.
2) What impact does J4NG have on Nevada's youth? What are some of the inspiring stories about J4NG students that you would like to share with us?
J4NG is a life-changing program for youth. It can dramatically change the path a child is on where the outcomes could be dropout, poverty and dependence. Typically, youth enter J4NG with multiple roadblocks that may be impeding their success, and gives them the pride, skills, motivation and desire to graduate and build a bright and successful life through education and career preparation. With a 96% graduation rate, an 81% employment rate and a 52% further education rate, the impact is evident not only in the stories we hear, but in the outcomes students achieve.
Each year, we meet new J4NG students who are ready to have their lives changed for the better. We love watching these students go off to get great jobs or pursue college after high school with the help of J4NG. Starting this recent Fall semester, our 6th cohort of J4NG students started their apprenticeships with the Tesla Manufacturing Development Program (MDP). This program has been widely successful to our students; with J4NG’s help, students have been able to enter Tesla’s highly competitive workforce at the Reno Gigafactory and simultaneously attend college at Truckee Meadows Community College in Northern Nevada. One of our 2021 grads was recently promoted to a supervisor role with Tesla after completing his apprenticeship.
Another student in the program recently shared her story about starting high school with failing grades and chronic absenteeism after experiencing challenges at home. Once she entered the J4NG program, her grades and success at school started to turn around. Now, as a junior in high school, she has all passing grades, is actively involved in school, and is serving as J4NG’s President of the Career Association at her high school.
These are just some of the many examples of honorable student achievement that comes out of the J4NG program.
You can see more examples of our student impact on this video: here.
3) What is the impact of J4NG on local businesses and Nevada's economy?
J4NG prepares youth to enter post-graduation employment with the work-readiness skills they need to advance in their respective pathways of choice. J4NG develops students’ problem-solving, teamwork, professionalism and other soft skills that make them the training-ready youth that employers in all industries need in their workforce.
In a State Policy Report from early 2022, Nevada was ranked number one as the best economy in the country for its performance in three areas: personal income growth, employment growth and population growth. Nevada’s growing economy also demands more skilled workers. Because of this, we partner with businesses in Nevada across all sectors and industries - from hospitality to tech to mining - to help create pathways to well-paying and highly-skilled jobs upon graduation. J4NG not only teaches youth about the various job opportunities available to them in their state, but also how to actually get jobs in that industry, while setting them on a path to obtaining certifications or requirements needed to be successful.
4) What were some of the challenges you’ve faced in leading the J4NG program and how did you overcome those challenges?
The need for the program has never been greater. When J4NG was created, Nevada’s graduation rate was below 70%. Today, while that figure stands at over 80%, we are seeing troubling indicators of regression aggravated by the pandemic. Before the pandemic, Nevada’s youth were still significantly lagging national averages in reading, math, graduation rates and readiness for the workforce. With the pandemic, these already struggling youth, especially those from low-income and minority households, fell further behind. Many are a year or more behind in reading and math.
Making sure students have access at school to a trusted, caring adult makes a significant impact on their education and ability to succeed. J4NG will continue working to increase the number of programs offered in the state, so that more students have access to a J4NG program in their zoned school.
5) What are your goals for the organization in the next three years?
Growth is one of our largest priorities and goals for the program. J4NG seeks to maximize its impact on Nevada’s youth by expanding to one hundred programs over the next few years and thereby help many more youth in need of J4NG.