CLARK COUNTY — With each passing era comes changes to the workforces of the day.

To keep up with the evolving demands of a technologically-advanced job market, communities have taken new approaches for procuring qualified employees. One example of this can be seen in local school districts. Over the past decade, many schools across the country have implemented a heightened focus on the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics — otherwise known as STEM.

Now, one school district in Southern Indiana is taking that line of thinking a step further by localizing its four major areas of focus to align with the needs of the local economy.

Greater Clark County Schools is in its second year of the Ford Next Generation Learning (NGL) academy model, where sophomores, juniors and seniors choose from numerous career-specific pathways within the four academies of business, public service, health and engineering.

“Ultimately, the goal of it is to provide young people and students with skills and with options to make them better prepared for meeting a local economic demand,” said former academy coordinator Jason Graves, who helped guide the corporation through the transition. “The idea is to eventually have all of these academies and pathways to let students find the real world, to figure out what skills and certifications can help them prepare for work or college after high school.”

In his new position as the southern regional director for the Indiana Department of Workforce Development, Graves said he plans to work to get young Hoosiers throughout the state up to speed on workforce needs in their communities and new ways to learn about career opportunities. Much of the work Graves does, he said, mirrors what he started at Greater Clark, just on a larger scale.

“It’s going to change and grow,” he said of the economy. “We can’t be afraid of trying something new and failing. We have to be nimble and adapt as the economy adapts.”

PATHWAYS TO SUCCESS

Under the business umbrella at Greater Clark, students choose from more granular fields such as communications and marketing or information technology. Public service students can choose law and public safety, while those in health might pursue a biomedical pathway.

The curriculum in each pathway gives students a variety of opportunities to get hands-on learning experiences, whether that be on campus with work-based problem-solving or out in the field through an internship. An ongoing project is seeing some students gets real-world experience in the production of electricity.

Through a partnership with REMC, Charlestown High School students in engineering, math and computer science will get a better, firsthand understanding of a needed job in Indiana.

“Lineman is a high-demand, high-wage job right now,” Graves said. “They’re going to take a room at Charlestown and simulate the job... How do you generate electricity, transport it and what do you do when you get it? It’s really taking the workplace to the student.”

In the end, the model is meant to produce better-prepared, more knowledgeable individuals primed for success in the workforce.

Graves said the long-term benefits of the model can be seen in other major cities like Nashville, Tenn.

“One of the reasons that Nashville is having the economic success they’re having now is because of the model they used,” he said. “They are meeting the economic demands of the community. Hopefully, we will get more of that moving forward.”

BENEFITS TO BUSINESS

Some local employers have already taken advantage of the groundwork done by Greater Clark. W.M. Kelley, a metal fabricator located in the nearby city of New Albany, has hired several new employees through its involvement in the academy program.

Ryan Banet said it all started with lunch-and-learns with the welding department at Jeffersonville High School. The company, he added, had already established a relationship with the schools, as many of its high-level employees started at the age of 18, immediately upon graduation.

With its recent additions, W.M. Kelley originally hired one student out of the welding pathway. Three more subsequently came in for what was to be a “practice” interview. They were then hired by the company as well.

“With the background they get from Jeff, they have a better start than people coming in cold,” Banet said. “It’s also nice to have them coming in young, so we can teach them our standards and not have to worry about any bad habits. As long as they stick with us, it’s pretty beneficial for us. Our vice president of production started with us out of Jeff High.”

Beginning a couple of decades ago, Banet said there was a big push to get young people into four-year degree programs at traditional universities. Because of that push, a void opened in tradework. With Greater Clark’s push to broaden the opportunities it offers in the trades, he expects to see a change.

“Right now, it’s very difficult to find a lot of students and younger people to go into technical trades,” he said. “When we’re hiring welders, it’s a difficult position to fill. When we have programs like this, it’s helping people into the vocational trades. About 15 or 20 years ago, everybody was pushing college. That left a skills gap for finding people at a young age. This is helping fill that gap.”

CAREER-CENTRIC LEARNING

The Indiana Department of Education recently published Indiana’s K-12 Work-based Learning Manual, which was an effort to give schools a framework for implementing career-centric learning programs.

Press secretary Adam Baker said that the entire goal of such a program is to build stronger bridges between schools and their surrounding communities, similar to what W.M. Kelley has done with Greater Clark.

“It’s extremely important to provide comprehensive opportunities for students to explore careers or even earn career-specific credentials, if they find a career for which they have a strong passion,” Baker said. “Strengthening the connection between schools and employers allows both parties to benefit. One such benefit is career exploration and increased relevance and engagement for schools, and potential for a talent pipeline for employers.”

Tony Harl, assistant director of Career and Technical Education in the Governor’s Workforce Cabinet, said that while Greater Clark is currently the only school corporation in Indiana participating in Ford NGL, other instances of career-centric educational models can be found throughout the state, including in Indianapolis Public Schools.

At Crispus Attucks, students can take courses to prepare them for a career in health sciences. Similarly, Arsenal Tech students can get a better understanding of skilled trades, like welding.

“As we work to strengthen Career and Technical Education across Indiana, our goal is to help individuals develop their talents through career preparation for high-skill, in-demand fields,” Harl said. Greater Clark’s academy model and career pathways are a great example of a school corporation and community putting that goal into practice.”

While fields like welding and nursing have seen an immediate benefit from the Greater Clark academy model, Harl said every industry comes out on top when they are given the opportunity to choose from a more qualified pool of prospective employees.

“We’re seeing this idea of project-based learning,” he said. “The students and individuals are better prepared. They’re more talented when they come out. Anytime you have better educated, well-rounded individuals, it benefits every industry. That benefits the local economy, and ultimately boosts the state economy as a whole.”

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