JACKSON, Tenn. – Savannah Simmons hopes to become a forensic scientist.
To get there, every school day she puts on a pair of safety goggles and works, not in a laboratory but in a manufacturing plant.
And when the 17-year-old high school student arrives at Stanley Black & Decker for her job, she stays for her classes.
She is part of a unique educational initiative known as the Local Options and Opportunities Program, or L.O.O.P.
At Stanley Black & Decker, a select group of teens work four hours a day out on the manufacturing floor stocking the assembly line and sorting tool parts. The other half of the day, they work on algebra, biology and English literature – in a classroom built right inside the manufacturing plant.
The program goes beyond traditional internships or job shadow experiences to provide real-world experience in a better-than-minimum-wage job.
With buy-in from the local business community, this unique partnership has not only addressed the area’s critical workforce development issues, but also provided invaluable opportunity for high school students who may not otherwise be given a chance.
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It is a model that can extend across the state and stretch across industry, building students more varied paths to success and helping overcome the inequities that may hold them back in their communities and schools throughout Tennessee.
“It’s given me the opportunity to go to college,” Simmons said as she took a short break from her schoolwork for the day. “I don’t really come from a very rich family so having the ability to save up a couple thousand dollars for school is a tremendous help.”
‘We need to challenge the status quo’
Gov. Bill Lee continues to be an advocate for vocational training in Tennessee. In his State of the State address, the governor said high schools need to look a lot different.
He echoed that as he toured Jackson, Tennessee-based Stanley Black & Decker in September and learned more about the city’s early college high school program.
“We need to have out-of-the-box creative thinking; we need to challenge the status quo; we need to do things to make us think about things differently,” he told the Jackson Sun.
Programs like L.O.O.P., he said, need to be duplicated and “used to further the way we change high school across Tennessee.”
Tennessee has put a major emphasis on work-based learning in recent years. In 2017, the Governor’s Rural Task Force developed a work-based learning grant program funded through the Rural Economic Opportunity Act.
Forty grants totaling $1 million were awarded to school districts across the state to assist the development or expansion of work-based learning programs that promote career awareness and student readiness in all grades.
These programs emphasize career and technical pathways as a way to make school more relevant and help keep students’ interest – because not everyone will or wants to go to college.
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‘We were failing our kids’
But it takes buy-in from all corners of a city or rural community to make change.
That includes the business community.
In Nashville, the first significant step to securing that partnership came with the creation of the Academies program in high schools across the city.
First created in the 2005-06 school year, it was launched “out of necessity,” said Donna Gilley, director for the Academies of Nashville. High school graduation rates for Metro Schools were around 50%.
“We were failing our kids,” she said.
Today, the Academies empower high school students by offering career exposure and helping teens discover their true passions while earning early college credit and industry certifications. There are 36 academies in 12 schools.
Right now, most of the students’ experiences come inside the school building where industry professionals visit to speak to classes or participate in on-site lessons in the kitchens, video studios and workshops at the schools.
“When we started, we didn’t think about the outcome being jobs,” Gilley said. “It’s a nice outcome, but we wanted kids to be engaged and come to school and graduate.”
Now, they are ready for Academies 2.0, which, Gilley said, will expand beyond field trips and school-year job shadows to include more on-the-job experience in places like medical clinics and manufacturing plants outside the school walls.
This year, it is piloting a pre-apprenticeship program with high school freshmen, Gilley said. By the time they graduate, the goal is to have those students finish high school content in morning classes and then go to work or take a bus to Nashville State Community College to complete a tech certificate.
“Goal No. 1 is graduation – and we still have work to do,” Gilley said. “But we have to step further than that.
“That doesn’t always mean a four-year degree and college debt. There’s a world of opportunity out there. Really it’s just helping our students see that. If I can sum it up in one word it’s hope.”
Thinking outside the box and opening a door
Through the program known as Academy Scholars, students get practical experience in a real-world setting. To get into the program, students go through a selection and interview process. If chosen, they are given royal blue scrubs and take part in the commission ceremony – just like all associates at Saint Thomas medical partners.
They then take part in rotations at local clinics. They work the front desk, schedule appointments, check people in and out. They go into the room with the patients and record height and weight. They take vitals, draw blood and get as much exposure as possible to the job.
Professional mentors also go into the schools and lead classes with the health sciences teachers. The end-of-the-school-year goal is to have seniors in the program sit for the medical assistant exam and earn their certification, while amassing on-the-job experience.
“The challenge is that students would graduate with a certification, but no one would hire them because they don’t have practical clinical experience,” said Andrew Smith, regional director of operations for Saint Thomas Medical Partners. “This opens doors for them.
“Whether they pursue further education or join our team, our goal is to train them to go into the Greater Nashville community and support other employers and give the students a leg-up.”
Giving students a reason to stay
Barriers to education in rural areas often cause college-ready students to leave for other schooling and employment opportunities – and many never come back.
As a result, major employers have little incentive to invest. Unemployment increases. Job opportunities decrease. And, eventually, rural areas face distress.
Work-based learning is advantageous to those counties eager for a young workforce.
In Chattanooga, automotive component manufacturer Gestamp became a trailblazer for student opportunity when it launched its apprenticeship program with Hamilton County Schools in 2016.
Designed to help students learn the skills needed for the workforce, including advanced manufacturing, the program allows students to take online academic classes at Gestamp as well as complete real-life work experience at the Gestamp facility.
It became the first program in Tennessee to earn the U.S. Department of Labor’s registered apprenticeship designation.
At Gestamp, students earn $9 an hour for their work when they begin the program and, once completed, students can earn up to $12 an hour. Registered apprenticeship training is different from other types of work-study programs because students are paid as they train and their training results in earning an industry-recognized credential.
That is what set the model for Stanley Black & Decker.
‘If we don’t do something about it, we’re going to cease to exist’
The biggest hurdle faced by companies is the legal approval for such an initiative. Hiring high school students – some who are 17 years old – to work production jobs where safety is key can look like a legal nightmare.
Transportation is another. Getting students, many of whom do not own or cannot afford a car, to work from school during the day is a challenge facing many work-based learning programs.
It takes true buy-in from a company to make it happen. Stanley Black & Decker had a big incentive to work out legal issues and eliminate the transportation problem with an in-house classroom. In the next five years, 30% of the company’s 800 employees will be eligible for retirement.
“They were really scared to death to bring kids in,” Myracle said. “They were worried about possible accidents and kids not listening.
“But workforce development is our No. 1 issue, and if we don’t do something about it, we’re going to cease to exist. This was our opportunity to get active. …
“We want to open students’ eyes – even if they leave here – that these are skills they need to be successful.”
‘You get to change their life’
The idea isn’t just exclusive to the rural manufacturing industry.
Health care. Finance. Music production. Publishing. Tech. It’s all opportunity.
It’s real-life experience that allows for certifications, a professional salary beyond minimum wage and an opportunity that can lift students out of tough situations and inspire them to new careers.
“There is untapped talent in these students,” Smith said. “It’s just recognizing the potential that’s there.”
For Saint Thomas, the rewards have been great. They are creating a talent pool with potential employees who are fully invested in the organization and committed to the mission because of the opportunity they were given early on.
“There’s a return on the investment that you make and that return is seeing differently,” Smith said. “It’s easy to go out and recruit talent on LinkedIn or whatever else, but these are students who you developed.
“They are folks who are going to show up for work and be dedicated because you gave them something they may not have gotten on their own.
“These are personal relationships – and you get to change their life.”
Follow reporter Jessica Bliss on Twitter @jlbliss
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