The big idea


So what’s the big idea driving 5,000 high school students from nine Northeast Tennessee counties (and Bristol, Va.) to the Mini-dome for a super-massive career fair this week? The idea is that education and employment need to get back on the same page.

For years, arguments about political and societal issues have taken time away from educators and administrators who perhaps should have been focused on answering questions like, “Are our children learning the skills they’ll need to get good jobs without having to move away?” Employers have been saying, in louder and more strident tones, they need a better pool of potential employees if we want to keep jobs in the region.

Chris Lloyd, senior vice president and director with McGuire Woods Consulting (a site selector whom large companies hire to tell them what communities are the best places to build their plants and bring their jobs) recently told the Southwest Virginia Economic Development Summit, “A lot of schools used to just push students through with no connection with what industry was saying it needed. High school CTE programs were created on the basis of popularity. I used to have to say, ‘There’s not a cosmetology gap.’”

The situation is getting better, but the rate of improvement needs to increase, on both sides of the Tennessee-Virginia state line. That brings us to the big shindig at the Mini-dome.

At this event, dubbed “CareerQuest” students, educators and employers are coming together to see how each can help the other. Students and educators will get a first-hand view of what employers will be hiring people to do in the next few years. Employers will have the opportunity to make connections with bright students whom they will want to keep tabs on as the students close in on graduation.

The big idea? To allow students to see today what they need to learn for tomorrow. To let educators see what employers need them to be teaching. To help make education an effective bridge from childhood to career-long success.

The prime mover behind the event is the First Tennessee Development District’s Workforce Initiatives office, headed up by Lottie Ryans, who attended a similar event attended by 9,000 students in Michigan last year. “I had representation from NN Inc., Mountain States and the Washington County Economic Development Council with me. We all walked in, saw what was happening and said, ‘This has got to come to our region.’”

“If anything,” Ryans said, “many students have misconceptions. They may think manufacturing is dark, dingy and dirty. They might think they want to work in health care, only to find that the sight of blood bothers them. This event gives students the opportunity to interact with the people who do the work. It also gives that opportunity to teachers and counselors who may not realize what’s available to their students. And it gives everyone the opportunity to start talking about issues like work ethic.”

Among the first businesses to sign up to take part in the event was Wellmont Health System. Senior Vice President of Human Resources Hamlin Wilson who said, “We’ve very excited to provide an experiential learning opportunity for students in our region about healthcare jobs – hands on experiences. We will have a simulated sleep lab for instance, where students will be able to actually place electrode terminals and see the EEG, EKG and EOG readings.”

Wellmont isn’t just entertaining students for a day, though. By taking part in CareerQuest, the company is seeing to its own long-term growth. “We in health care have to work very hard to attract a sufficient pool of energized, interested, competent new employees into our field,” Wilson said. “Students are making early decisions about their careers while they’re in high school. If we can interest them in health care in general, we’re on the right road.”

Lloyd told economic developers that Virginia recently had three times as many high school programs to train students for careers in fashion design than in medical fields. The last time Virginia was a fashion leader was in the 1760s. Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee need medical professionals today.

One of the keys to long-term success for the CareerQuest event is to insure that it’s not just a one-time flash-in-the-pan experience, but is woven into a fabric of other opportunities to help students enter the workforce in a way that’s advantageous not only to them, but to the business community.

“We want to create a continuum of opportunity and experience for our students and business partners,” Ryans said. “CareerQuest represents the exploration side, where we really start the conversation about the opportunities available to them. With our Pathways program, which is still in its infancy, we want to talk about what programs are available at the high school and post-secondary level, and do those meet the needs of business? Another thing we’re working on is Work Ready Communities, and there is a high school component of that. Additionally, we’re working on the Work Ready Diploma, which should be available to the senior class beginning in 2018. So we go from informing to equipping.”

Not a bad idea.


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