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Eye-opening look at careers

Published 10:35 am Wednesday, March 13, 2013

After traveling to Baltimore recently for a conference focused on student college and career readiness, I was eager to compare my newfound knowledge to what is happening in local schools.

My interest aligned perfectly with Operation Preparation, Kentuckys college and career advising month.

For the second consecutive year, students in the eighth and 10th grades met with advisors to review their college and career plans and talk about their goals, required training, testing benchmarks and transcripts.

With a statewide student-to-guidance counselor ratio of about 450:1, students rarely have the opportunity to talk one-on-one about their aspirations. Operation Preparation is designed to change that by recruiting volunteers from the community.

This year, I was among the volunteers. I worked alongside CapCity Communications owner Kristin Cantrell and State Journal photographer Dylan Buell to advise Western Hills High School sophomores interested in arts and communication fields.

Our experience Tuesday was in stark contrast to discussion at the conference.

One session, sponsored by the Education Writers Association, outlined the pipeline problem a lack of student interest in STEM fields, but a high demand for STEM talent in the job market.

(STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.)

Terry Grobe, program director for Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit group promoting improvements in education and workforce strategies, attributed this problem to guidance counselors and advising options.

Theres a real lack of knowledge about postsecondary options and whats going on in the labor market, Grobe said.

Guidance counselors and college advisors and young people and their parents really lack knowledge about what degrees pay off and what fields are in demand.

Her statement rubbed me the wrong way.

Maybe it was because just a few weeks prior, Jim Masters, director of high schools for Franklin County Public Schools, had given me a demonstration of Career Cruising, software used by Kentucky school districts to craft learning plans for each student.

The portal not only provides parents, students and advisors with a career snapshot that includes grades, testing benchmarks and graduation requirements, but it also allows them to explore possible career pathways. It matches a students interests with relevant careers and aggregates job listings and salaries from sites like Monster and CareerBuilder.

But I think the statement bothered me more because I believe students need advisors who listen to their aspirations and career goals advisors who help them get there.

At Franklin Countys Operation Preparation, there were about 80 of those advisors, all professionals from the community. There were physical therapists, attorneys, payroll managers, business owners and civil engineers, among many other professions.

None of those volunteers spent their 25-minute advising sessions persuading students to pursue only degrees that pay more or only fields that are in high demand.

Not once did I hear a student say, Well, Id really like to be a teacher, but it doesnt pay enough, or I want to be a doctor or a lawyer because of the money.

But after participating in Operating Preparation, Im fairly confident Grobes statements do not apply to Franklin County schools and likely not to districts across Kentucky. Parents, advisors and students dont lack knowledge about what degrees pay off, students are just taught to pursue their passions above a paycheck.

There were some students to whom we could offer only limited advice. Two students chatted with us about animation and another about fashion design.

We turned away two who although they had arts and communications listed on their name tags told us they were interested in information technology and STEM careers.

Just a few seconds later, another girl approached our table and sat down. She told us she likes to write. Writing and communicating is what we know; we could help this one.

Shes an active member of the schools Writing Club, and she said she likes to read in her free time. She was already sold on a college: West Virginia University, which offers an English degree with a creative writing concentration.

I suggested self-publishing an eBook to send to colleges, a project that could help her stand out from her peers.

I would, but I dont have access to any of the technology, she said, staring at her hands in her lap.

She explained to us that she is set to be the first in her family to graduate from high school, and she doesnt have a computer to use at home.

Cantrell and I helped her brainstorm ways to utilize what resources she did have access to. Theres Paul Sawyier Public Library. She could use a school computer in her free time before or after school. She could save up for a laptop netbooks have dropped significantly in price and a refurbished model can be found for less than $100.

She started to get excited about her possibilities, and Cantrell wanted to see follow-through from the excitement.

Im sure I have a thumb drive at the radio station I can give you, she told the student, later handing her a business card with her phone number and address.

The students eyes lit up like she had just been offered the key to her future and perhaps she had.