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Cradle to Career: Workforce development a priority

On November 5, a cross-section of residents gathered at the Troy Recreation Center to discuss actions the community could take to benefit and improve educational opportunities in the city.

The meeting broke participants up into five different discussion tables to brainstorm actions that can enhance learning opportunities in five separate categories: workforce development, mental health and wellbeing, parental involvement, diversifying afterschool programs and capitalizing on existing assets and promoting communication.

One of the key areas of focus at Troy City Schools in recent years, particularly at Charles Henderson High School, has been workforce development.

Former CHHS principal Brock Kelley, who now heads workforce development initiatives for the Alabama Department of Education, was one of the leaders at the roundtable.

“The focus right now within Pike County is on what our industries are needing and what they’re wanting,” Kelley said. “Our table also talked about the need to create awareness of what types of businesses and what types of skills are needed all the way down into elementary school. We discussed the need for employability skills to be taught, those soft skills needed – attendance, showing up, having a good attitude– having those things taught as low as kindergarten and focusing on doing the right things. That’s what employers are going to be looking for upon completion of high school and college.”

During Kelley’s time as principal, he implemented the Ready-to-Work program at CHHS, a program which had not been integrated at the high school level, to prepare students for those soft skills. He also implemented Manufacturing Skills Standards Council (MSSC) training to certify students in manufacturing skills to get a leg up for jobs within the industry.

Lockheed Martin, Pike County Operations has already embedded its six-week training program into the curriculum, and now Sanders Lead is working toward bringing students to participate in Sanders University.

Kelly Grenon, alloying and casting manager at Sanders Lead, said integrating training into high schools is an important piece of education.

“I think it’s extremely important to teach our kids at a younger age to be thinking about what they want to do,” Grenon said. “We do hire a lot of young kids in here and they seem to not have any direction. Our schools should help set them up with some direction. One of the programs we do is called Sanders University and we’re looking soon to open that to high school students. Upon completion of the course, we would offer them a job at a certain pay rate.

“Those kind of programs are really good in helping these younger kids coming straight out of high school. Some other companies and industries in our area could also do that. Kimber wants to hire a couple hundred machinists, I think it would be great to invest in there.”

Caleb Dawson, president of the Troy Elementary School PTO, said he would like to see another pathway included in workforce development in addition to the current offerings.

“As a parent of two students, I’d like to see workforce development include some kind of education about entrepreneurship,” Dawson said. “I’ve worked in a very small business in Troy and one of the largest businesses in Troy. In both of those settings, an emphasis on workforce development would have improved both workplaces. My wife is a pediatrician at Charles Henderson Child Health Center and they’ve got an ongoing need for qualified staff. Every other businessperson I know in Troy is always identifying human resources they can depend on. Just from experience and observation, it is really a need in our community.”

Kelley said the table participants agreed that students need to be made aware of the many different career pathways that are accessible for them.

“We talked about the stigma of there not being two definite pathways,” Kelley said. “Everybody is going to postsecondary training of some sort, whether that’s two-year colleges, four-year colleges or professional development that a company sends them to. It’s about creating a process, not just programs within a system, but a process that students go through from kindergarten all the way up to senior year of high school of learning what is available to them.”

There is also a need for parents to understand the programs and resources already being offered by the schools.

“A lot wanted to see more career and technical education opportunities,” said Katie Thomas, “We talked a lot about creating awareness about resources that are already here. During the discussion, some people said we need a program teaching manufacturing skills. But CHHS and Pike County Schools are already offering that. We talked about the disconnect of the public being aware of what programs the schools had to offer. Three or four times it came up that people had ideas, and the schools were already offering something to that effect. A lot of what the school system needs is to draw attention to the good things they’re already doing. They’re doing things that schools across the state aren’t doing.”

Dr. Lee Hicks, superintendent, said communicating what the system has to offer in terms of workforce development is an important part of the process and is something the system strives to do as often as possible.

“I’ve got to give credit to Dr. Kelley for really building on (workforce development) and taking it to another level,” Hicks said. “We already have partnerships in place with local employees and have some tentative partnerships that we are working on. We want to do anything we can to prepare our young people to be job-ready. That falls in with the college and career readiness standard we have to meet for the State report cards. Our students work very, very hard and we have improved every year, and now we are one of highest around this area.

“I think that, as we can tell through the Cradle to Career forums, parents or stakeholders do not know all that we are doing. We do use media and social media, but it was brought up that we do not have TV commercials yet. That is something we will look at in the future.”

Hicks said one area in which the school system is continuing to grow workforce development programs in the lower grades.

“We have already been teaching that in many ways, but not necessarily in formal settings,” Hicks said. “At younger ages, you’re teaching skills like collaboration, going through the whole process of what work will be like but not making it ‘work.’ Those soft skills are what is being leaned toward across the board.”

The school system is always looking at other systems and seeing what has been successful to try to always keep improving, Hicks said.

Moving forward, the overall focus for continuing to grow workforce development within the schools is to partner with more local business and industry and to make students and parents aware of the opportunities available.

“One of the concrete things we talked about were bringing other industries to the table to see what’s available for them to do in the same realm as Lockheed Martin and Sanders companies,” said Marcus Paramore, president of the Troy City Council. “ The other thing is making sure everybody knows what their opportunities are and getting feedback from parents and students on what they need.”