Breaking down barriers

Tools and events help facilitate connections between employers, students

Posted on Sep 1, 2017 :: Education , Insight On
Jessica Thiel
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

About one in four graduating seniors in the Fox Valley walk across the stage with no plan.

The statistic is disquieting for Patty Milka, vice president of talent and education for the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce, both for those students and the lost opportunities it represents. The chamber aims to find a way to reach those students for their sake and that of employers in dire need of workers.

“To us it’s low-hanging fruit,” Milka says. “How can we partner and develop something and work with our businesses to provide post-high school training opportunities and get them engaged earlier?”

The chamber’s Talent Collaborative sees reaching kids earlier as one way to address the problem. Each spring, it holds the Your Future Eighth Grade Career Expo, bringing together more than 2,500 middle-schoolers and employers for a day of career exploration at Lake Park Sportzone in Menasha.

This school year, it will expand the program to include a second day, focusing on high school sophomores and seniors. The high school event will take place in the afternoon into the early evening, giving parents an opportunity to attend.

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“What we’re trying to do is get to the parents because we know they’re the secret sauce,” Milka says. “They’re the ones who are helping to guide their kids.”

Milka sees the Talent Collaborative’s role as one of facilitating relationships between employers and schools. Businesses and schools don’t necessarily operate at the same pace, so the organization strives to balance that.

Last fall, the chamber held a math day and brought in teachers across all levels to hear representatives from four different companies discuss math requirements for high school graduates. Milka says the experience proved eye-opening, as participants learned, for example, that students still need to know how to measure and use a ruler. These simple-seeming skills aren’t necessarily reinforced throughout an academic career.

Rita O’Brien, dean of career-based learning for the Appleton Area School District, says the district has long prioritized career-based learning, and this fall it will hold an event to further encourage connections between business and education.

At the event, scheduled for Oct. 24 at the D.J. Bordini Center, O’Brien says she hopes to bring in businesses representing all 16 of the district’s career clusters and learn more about what they need from the district and how to effectively connect career paths to students. 

“I think businesses are wondering how to best engage, and we really just want them to learn what we’re doing in Appleton to make that connection,” O’Brien says.

The district also has started a career exploration hubs program in its middle and high schools. The hubs will become an interactive platform for employers to engage with students and teachers.

The program, which is still evolving, will start at Appleton East High School this fall. O’Brien wants the hubs to create a live and vibrant experience for students. Businesses would have the opportunity to sponsor it and get engaged in person or using technology. For example, a professional could broadcast a workplace tour using a GoPro camera.

“I would hope that it would spark questions and inquiry,” O’Brien says.

New tool connects employers, students

All nine Wisconsin regional economic development organizations have teamed to develop a statewide platform connecting local employers to students. With support from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. and the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, the organizations will expand use of Inspire, a web-based platform that virtually connects businesses to future talent.

Software company Career Cruising, already used in school districts including AASD, created the tool. It’s designed to help students, teachers and parents better engage with employers. It will connect databases for the nine regions, creating a network that helps students and employers connect regionally as well as statewide.

“New North is working with a team of partners in workforce development, business and education to shape a defined plan for Inspire sublicenses in the region,” Jerry Murphy, executive director of New North Inc., said in a press release. “We anticipate that work to conclude within three months and result in a formal rollout of the plan. Inspire provides a second platform in the region.”

Both the Fox Cities and Green Bay chambers will continue to use the Your Future platform, created in partnership with area schools and businesses. It shares many features with Inspire. Both provide a way for students to interact with employers through opportunities such as job shadowing, mentoring and interviewing.

In the Fox Cities, some 200 businesses and 1,700 students use Your Future. Companies such as Boldt Co. have created videos promoting careers, and teachers can use it to invite content experts to speak in classes or schedule professional development tours.

Students can use Your Future both in classes at school or on their own. Milka says it helps them develop sought-after soft skills and learn to communicate in a professional way that “doesn’t sound like a text.”

All these tools help students develop a plan, but at the same time, they leave room for evolution.

“We really want our kids to have a live and dynamic career plan,” O’Brien says. “We don’t want it to be a piece of paper.”