Training The Next Generation
Across southern Minnesota, employers are facing a workforce shortage as they try to fill positions within their businesses—especially in the technical fields of science, engineering, technology and manufacturing. While there are several factors at play, one of the biggest is the way we look at the next generation of workers.
In light of this, it stands to reason that parents and schools should start encouraging more students to explore options beyond a traditional four-year college experience. Part of that means showcasing different career choices to students long before they start applying for colleges. And southern Minnesota may just be ahead of the curve when it comes to that.
K-12 Programs That Encourage New Perspectives
Several area school districts offer students the chance to explore different career paths through the Minnesota Community and Technical College Credit Program. These programs allow students to study anything from web page design to cabinetmaking during their school day, while simultaneously earning credits that transfer to technical or community colleges. Teachers offer guidance to students as early as 8th grade or even before, since students need to take certain prerequisites before they’re allowed to join a Career and Technical Education (CTE) program.
According to Mankato East High School Principal Jeff Dahline, the Mankato district has offered CTE classes for several years, and the demand just keeps growing as more and more students enroll. In particular, industrial technology courses have seen a popularity spurt in recent years. Dahline added that there has been talk about expanding the offerings to include more life sciences and health-related fields.
“We want to make sure every student is prepared to do what they want to or need to after graduation,” he said.
The real challenge in this program is making sure all the pieces fit, since it can be difficult for students to complete the necessary graduation requirements (in classes such as math and language) while taking on more “elective”-type courses within the CTE programs.
Another program offered at several area schools is “Project Lead the Way,” a nationwide initiative that focuses on technology, engineering and math in all levels of elementary and high school. The middle school program, Gateway to Technology, introduces students to automation, robotics, green architecture and more. Meanwhile, high school programs range from PLTW Biomedical Science, which leads students through the investigation and analysis of a supposed crime, to PLTW Engineering, which teaches students about the engineering design process. Some examples of PLTW in Minnesota schools include the high school engineering program at United South Central High School in Wells and the Gateway to Technology program at Dakota Meadows Middle School in Mankato.
Every PLTW program has a curriculum component, a professional development component and an assessment at the end of the course for feedback. Some programs are offered to schools as basic classes, while others allow students to earn AP credits. When it comes to this program, schools are required to finance teacher training as well as purchase equipment and supplies—and pay the annual participation fee, which ranges from $750 for PLTW Gateway to $3,000 for PLTW Engineering.
Yet a third option comes from Junior Achievement of the Upper Midwest, an organization that offers kids interactive lessons about business and entrepreneurship. Classroom programs are available for school districts from kindergarten to high school classes, focusing on world skills such as money management, business skills and exploring economics. Often, the programs (which are usually only a few sessions each) are fit within a different class, such as a high school economics class. Both teachers and volunteers help with instruction. In the Greater Mankato area alone, more than 7,800 kids participated in these lessons during the 2014-2015 school year, an increase of 800 students compared to last year, and 250 adults volunteered.
Besides the classroom portion, Junior Achievement also offers experiences that allow students to put what they’ve learned to use. JA BizTown is a daylong event that places students in a 10,000 square ft. kid-sized city where they interview for jobs, elect a mayor, get “paid” salaries and run the city. JA Titan allows teams of students to participate in an online competition where they create and market a company within a business simulation. JA Job Shadow, like its name implies, takes students to real businesses to learn skills from professionals.
The latest event to reach southern Minnesota is the new “Start It Up!” Camp that was hosted at MSU Mankato this summer. About 30 students attended the week-long camp, which was a mix of classroom lectures by MSU faculty members, teambuilding activities, networking and field trips to area businesses. Lectures focused on everything from perfecting “elevator pitches” to recognizing market competition. Some activities included kayaking down the Minnesota River, attending a Mankato MoonDogs game and visiting the Taylor Corporation’s Innovation Center.
Throughout the week, the 33 campers also had to come up with an idea for a product and create a short video pitching it to a panel of judges on the last day. And some of the ideas these high school students came up with were pretty exciting. One team pitched an app called “Remember the Date,” which not only reminded users of important upcoming dates but also would sift through people’s social networks to find their interests and suggest gifts (these campers earned the judges’ “Future Entrepreneur Award”). Another team designed an app called “My Oven,” which would sync up to a device in a person’s oven and turn it off before the food could burn by regulating the food’s temperature.
“[Camp] was amazing,” said Matu Kelly, one of the creators of the “My Oven” app. “I learned a lot, especially about being open to opportunities that come your way.”
The hope is to make the “Start It Up!” camp an annual event.
Bringing The Choices To Students
In addition to in-class programs, some school districts are offering special events to introduce K-12 students to possible careers. Starting in 2014, the Waseca Area Chamber of Commerce worked with Waseca High School to offer the initiative, “Discover Waseca Careers,” which allows high school seniors the chance to visit 20 local businesses and interact with business executives. The featured businesses come from a variety of sectors, from agri-business to heating and electrical trades. This year, there will be two tours per month during the school year. Besides introducing students to different career options, the hope is to show them that Waseca has plenty of job opportunities within its borders.
Meanwhile, the Fairmont school districts hosts a “Career Day” every year that brings in more than 100 businesses, post-secondary institutions and organizations. This event is open to all students but aimed at sophomores, so they have a chance to learn more about different career opportunities before choosing their electives. While Fairmont hosts the event, students from more than 20 school districts also participate.
“It gives the students the opportunity to go physically meet with different companies to help them think about what they want to do when they finish high school,” said district superintendent Joseph Brown. “In this country, we have so many opportunities for our young men and women, and there are no barriers anymore. That’s why it’s so important to have the businesses and colleges and universities come into our community [and meet with students].”
Internships And Apprenticeships
While the previous programs are examples of K-12 education opportunities within school limits, some area schools have gone above and beyond to offer students hands-on learning experiences, forging partnerships with local businesses to offer full-scale internships. In Mankato, District 77 has partnered with EI Microcircuits, Kato Cable and MTU Onsite Energy to offer these interactive experiences through the Youth Employment Acceleration Program (YEAP). In fact, according to Career & College Readiness Coordinator Kim Mueller, the businesses came to her.
“It’s really a training program to get [students] some skills outside of the classroom,” she said. “It’s a totally different way of learning, and it fits kids’ interests. When you can take what you learn in the classroom and apply it in the real world, I think that’s fantastic.”
The program began last year and started with four students. Now, 10 are participating. In order to join, students are required to take prerequisite courses during their first two years of high school before starting the two-year YEAP Program. Then, the students can spend part of their school day working at one of the three participating businesses, under the one-on-one supervision of both a mentor and a coach. This time counts for school credit, and students are also paid the minimum wage hourly rate by the businesses. The work continues throughout the students’ summer break, when they often work 40 hours a week, and then into senior year. By the time they finish the program, they have accumulated 2,000 hours of on-the-job experience.
While the program is still young, it has already been deemed a great success, with businesses hiring on some of their YEAP students after graduation. Mueller said program organizers are now looking into the possibility of offering employment programs in the fields of health care and agricultural business, as well as finding more partnerships with area businesses.
Other programs focus on recent high school graduates in the hopes of keeping them in the area. Martin County started an internship program through a partnership with the Minnesota Valley Action Council, providing funds for businesses to hire college-age interns for eight-week summer internship programs. The county supplies the funds to pay students minimum-wage rates. Businesses apply to host these internships, which run 240-260 hours. Students also apply, and businesses have the chance to interview them before accepting them for a position. This year, 32 students and 34 businesses applied to the program.
Program coordinator Vicki Paskey said many students have gone through the internship and ended up with job offers afterwards.
“I think [Martin County] has been undiscovered for a while, and I think that’s starting to change,” she said. “We are planting seeds.”
Tiphanie Olmstead is one student who saw that seed take root and blossom. As an undergraduate at MSU-Mankato, she found an internship at the Workforce Center in Fairmont, where she helped people find jobs. The paid internship allowed her to keep her three other part-time jobs, take summer classes and stay in the area. Eventually, she was hired as a full-time employee at the center, and now she has bought a house and started a family.
“I never thought I’d stay in Minnesota, let alone in the small town, rural Minnesota where I grew up,” she said. “This internship did just what it intended to do: showed me the employment opportunities that are available around here, employed me, and ultimately kept me in the area. I owe a lot to the program!”
The program has done so well that it recently received the Association of Minnesota Counties’ 2013 Innovation and Excellence Award.
These are just some of the opportunities for southern Minnesota students to learn about their career options.
(Part III of this continuing series will focus on how efforts are being made to employ veterans.)