CREATE program looks for ways to improve career readiness

The economic future of our region looks bright but key to the success of coming generations is increasing career awareness and providing readiness training from an early age. That means more money for education.

That conclusion is part of what came out of a public forum here Wednesday sponsored by the CREATE Foundation and Toyota Wellspring Advisory Committee. The forum was one of three, held in the three PUL Alliance counties and facilitated by representatives of consultants MDG, Inc. of Durham, N.C.

That group will be working between now and November to continue to assess, study, review, hold focus groups and seek ideas to deal with the lack of career awareness and readiness training. Then they will present their report including areas of need to focus on and a plan of action.

The forum, held at the civic center, was opened by BNA Bank vice-president Mike Staten, who serves on the Wellspring committee. He posed the question of what children and grandchildren might answer if asked about what they want for college careers. “Many don’t know,” he said. “Would they finish college? What are their interests and priorities?”

Right now, too many students either don’t know, or have a goal but don’t know how to reach it. “It is vitally important for them to know the link between school and careers,” Staten said.

Before attacking that issue, CREATE President Mike Clayborne provided some background on the current project.

He reminded those present that in 2007 Toyota Motor Manufacturing Mississippi pledged $50 million to be used for education in the PUL Alliance counties of Pontotoc, Union and Lee. “That was $5 million per year for 10 years. We received the first gift in 2010,” he said. “This year we received the fifth one so we have half.”

So far, that money has gone into an endowment fund as desired by Toyota.

“They wanted three things,” Clayborne said. “One was to create an endowment with $50 million in at after 10 years. Second was to enhance public education. Third was to spend the money in a fair and equitable manner.”

The committee planned to invest the money so it would not take $50 million deposited to reach the total and decided to spend $1 million per year for the first four years. Then they could begin to rely on the interest.

The advisory committee made the decisions on what to spend that money on each year. One of the first was to purchase property in Blue Springs for the proposed Wellspring Center for Professional Futures, which, for various reasons, has been put on the back burner for now, Clayborne said.

The money has been used for many other projects including school curriculum assessments, a web application class with MSU, health courses with North Mississippi Medical Center and Northeast Mississippi Community College, robotics with ICC, summer academic camps and more.

“Today, kids don’t understand the opportunities available to them,” Clayborne said, “particularly emerging opportunities.” Many of the Wellspring projects have been geared to deal with that problem but more is needed, he said.

Senior Project Manager for MDC Colin Austin then took over and explained why they were here, referring to his presentation as “Linking Education to Careers.”

Austin said their goals include developing career awareness that has some labor market value, identifying career opportunities, generating ideas and strategies, encouraging collaboration and then producing from all that a final report with “clear vision” and focused priorities.

Austin showed that educational attainment locally generally mirrors that of the region and the state, but not so much the nation, and is mostly somewhat lower. Perhaps not surprisingly, the percentage of African-American youths ages 16-19 who are not in school or the labor force is significantly higher, Austin noted.

“There are projected jobs for this region over the next 10 years so we are not a region in economic crisis,” Austin said. “The key is to make sure young people have the skills for those jobs.”

And what is needed to prepare young people for these jobs?

From the standpoint of employers, they need to have better technical skills, be good at problem-solving and teamwork. But the industries also need better relationships with schools and the schools need a sustained curriculum from early childhood, Austin said. Employers say community colleges are trying, but need better technology and equipment. And there needs to be more career readiness discussions in the industrial sector itself.

Educators generally agree with employers, Austin said, but see the problems from their perspective. Schools lack the time and resources for one-on-one counseling, they say. Students need more training in terms of budgeting and finance, and concerning realistic salary expectations. In some areas, time and travel still present real obstacles to students in rural areas and dual-enrollment classes, while promising, are focused on general education rather that higher technical skills.

Several new strategies are available here and in the PUL area, and are working, but they are still new and most only impact 15 to 20 students at a time, Austin said.

He particularly mentioned the Pathways to Success statewide program, Community Development Foundation Marketing Camp in Lee County, mobile learning centers, Three Rivers Counseling to Careers intern program, Career Readiness Certificates and the new Advanced Manufacturing Technical Program being offered by Toyota.

Most of these are available in New Albany and Union County.

From the audience, Pam Brown talked about her conversations with young people, mostly at the Boys and Girls Club.

“They don’t really know what they want to do,” she said. “Realistically, not all of them will go to college but it seems we are pushing them that way. What are we doing for those in the ninth and tenth grade who are not going to college?”

And that prompted comments about alternatives to traditional college education.

Austin agreed that we need to break out of the pattern of how we view “traditional” jobs and Mike Staten also voiced support for non-academic jobs.

“There has been a stigma about maintenance jobs,” he said. “Toyota has six-figure salary maintenance jobs that are open right now.”

Board of supervisors president Danny Jordan pointed out that plumbers and electricians can make more money than most people but New Albany school superintendent Jackie Ford said a problem is that “Parents don’t want their children to take building trades.” While educators may have known for several years that a student is almost certainly not going to college, the parents don’t want to accept that.

City school trustee and attorney Matt Harris said a key may be earlier vocational-type testing.

“There is no coordinated effort to test students at an early age for personality and aptitude,” he said, “how they are wired.”

Committee consultant and former superintendent of education Dr. Charles Garrett responded that students are tested in seventh and eighth grades, but that results are essentially put in a drawer and forgotten because of a lack of resources.

That lack of resources struck county schools assistant superintendent Windy Faulkner as most important from an educator’s standpoint.

“It’s not about tracking students but about students understanding their options,” Austin said.

After comments, Austin ended his formal presentation with these conclusions:

  • Our economy is poised for growth but needs young skilled workers.
  • Schools lack the time and resources for career readiness.
  • Good programs exist but are not coordinated on a large scale.
  • Employers are talking to community colleges on an individual basis but not working together.
  • The needs and experiences of the emerging workforce are not well understood.

“There is no magic wand,” Clayborne concluded. “It’s going to take a multitude of things done in a coordinated way. We’ve got to figure out a way to open their eyes up to what the possibilities are but I think we’re on to something.”

Clayborne promised to keep the community updated on the committee efforts and eventual results of their report.