Schools, employers work to build trained work force

October 31st, 2014

News Coverage:

Schools, employers work to build trained work force

Posted: Thursday, October 30, 2014 11:00 pm

By Doug LeDuc

A poster that went up last year in the high schools of Fort Wayne Community Schools reminds students that dropouts earn $200,000 less than graduates over the course of their lives and $800,000 less than graduates who complete a four-year college program.

“A separate poster talks about average income based on education level,” said Chris Hissong, high school area director for FWCS. “It goes on to talk about unemployment and incarceration and the cost to society and the high risk behaviors. Kids who drop out of high school are certainly a challenge to society.”

The posters are an example of ongoing efforts underway at area school systems and colleges to help students prepare for the most rewarding careers possible once they become full-time members of the labor force. The success of these efforts will affect the future vitality of the regional economy.

The efforts involve programs that go beyond the work of guidance counselors who track student progress toward graduation and help them prepare for college education or vocational training beyond high school.

Guidance counselors do “schedule time to talk about ‘What are your career goals and what do you want to do with your life and let’s get you the education you need to get you on that path,’” Hissong said.

But their time for that is not unlimited, because they also serve as social workers for a school’s entire student body.

A formal program at FWCS to help students engage in career preparation from the sixth through 12th grades is Indiana Career Explorer, which is provided for free by the Indiana Department of Education.

In high school, the program’s curriculum is worked into careers and health classes in the freshman and sophomore years and into history and government classes in the junior and senior years.

“We want all children to complete this program,” Hissong said. “It will take kids through kind of a self-assessment ...When kids figure out what they want to do after high school, they become more focused on what they want to do in high school to reach that goal.”

The school system works with colleges, including Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne and Ivy Tech Community College-Northeast, to offer dual-credit courses, where students can earn credits toward college as well as high school graduation.

FWCS also employs Martin Murphy as a college and career readiness coordinator. He coordinates college visits and helps students complete college financial aid applications.

When opportunities arise, everyone working with students in the school system tries to help parents instill the kind of soft skills, such as good attendance and punctuality to organizational skills, respect and team collaboration. These skills make employees more attractive to employers, Hissong said.

Most important of the soft skills is “teaching them to make decisions and think through the decisions they’re going to make,” he said. “If we start that when they’re really young, it makes it much easier when they get to 20 years old.”

In addition to income, part-time jobs can assist high school students in sharpening their soft skills if the employment does not interfere with their education, he said.

Ivy Tech, IPFW and other colleges in the area have internship programs where students can sharpen soft skills and put into practice what they have been learning in the classroom to prepare for professions and vocations.

“I have had a couple of students ask me when they have seen an entry level position advertised, ‘How can it be entry level when one or two years of experience are required,’” said Deb Barrick, IPFW director of cooperative education. “That’s what internships do, internships and co-ops.”

An internship typically lasts one semester, whereas a cooperative education requires at least two semesters.

“Employers want to see that professional development and acquiring of skills, and in many one-semester situations that doesn’t happen,” Barrick said.

Three out of four cooperative education students from IPFW are hired by their co-op employer once they graduate, she said. The accounting profession uses the program more than any other industry.

“Many of the companies are making offers contingent on the student completing their degree, so we have a very high retention rate,” she said. “By that time, they’re an investment to the company.”

Ivy Tech has a program where students who are learning to become industrial maintenance technicians attend classes three days a week and spend two days a week in the workplace applying what they have learned in the classrooms and related training labs.

For example, if a student’s class and lab time are devoted to practice and instruction on the use of the programmable logic controllers that run factory automation and robotics, the student would be assigned to a plant’s work group which works with the controllers.

Ivy Tech Northeast received more than $2 million in grant funding from the Talent Initiative to buy some of the latest capital equipment, machinery and software for the advanced-manufacturing labs in the Steel Dynamics Keith E. Busse Technology Center.

Most of that funding was spent on high-end computer numerical control equipment, but the center also was able to buy precision measuring machines and robotic and metallurgy testing equipment.

“It seems like about once a week I get a phone call or email from an employer looking for somebody who has technical skills and ability who can at least understand what’s going on in their manufacturing facilities,” said Bob Parker, program chairman for the advanced automation and robotics technology program at the college.

Many of the machines used in manufacturing are very expensive “and they’re not going to want to put just anybody on that type of equipment unless they’ve had some formal training on it,” he said.

The dual-credit courses and ability to work part-time is paying off with several high school students are receiving a starting pay of $20-$23 after graduation, he added.