After learning the quadratic equation in Algebra class, or memorizing multisyllabic vocabulary words, many teachers can count on at least one student raising their hand to ask the age-old question, “When am I actually going to use this?” The answer that follows is an important one, but teens who have not yet explored possible career paths may be left feeling unconvinced.
Jason Luke, administrator of the Education for Employment (EFE) program for the Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency (RESA), explains, “We want all of our young people to be lifelong learners and post-secondary ready. But I think part of the challenge is when kids don’t know what career they want to pursue. The magic bullet that they say to appease society is, ‘I’m going to college,’ but often their post-high school plans don’t get more specific than that.”
As a result, many undergraduate students change their major, often multiple times, delaying graduation. And when they do enter the workforce, graduates can struggle with unemployment or underemployment before finding a direction that is right for them.
Kalamazoo RESA aims to meet this challenge head-on with its EFE project, spearheaded by Luke. Kalamazoo RESA is one of Michigan’s 56 independent school districts that work with local school systems to provide special education, career readiness, and technology support to public, private, and home-schooled students within the county. EFE is one of Kalamazoo RESA’s many initiatives that offers real-world experiences not offered in a traditional school setting. The program’s goal is to help young adults, whether bound for college or the workforce after graduation, prepare for a career.
EFE gives students the opportunity to delve into different fields, expand their interests, and discover themselves. According to Luke, “EFE is specifically focused on helping kids find their passion through exploring multiple intelligences. Sometimes, traditional education doesn’t always draw that out talent with the usual English, Math, Science, and Social Studies classes. I think there is a misconception that career and tech-ed are separate from post-secondary education. It should be both. We need to open those opportunities to the next generation.”
To accomplish this, EFE offers tenth through twelfth-graders in Kalamazoo County the opportunity to regularly meet at schools, college campuses, and industry sites to take hands-on classes in everything from culinary arts to computer science. Over 3,500 students are currently enrolled and can choose from 181 courses in 38 areas of study.
Additionally, Kalamazoo RESA partners with local employers to recruit industry professionals with a passion for teaching to provide the most valuable learning experience possible. In Vicksburg High School, for instance, EFE’s automated manufacturing teacher has decades of experience as an engineer, while a Kalamazoo Public Safety Officer teaches a class of young adults attracted to law enforcement. Through EFE, high school students can explore their interests while potentially accumulating credits towards a college degree. As of 2017, 96 percent of EFE students graduate and already have the knowledge and experience to get a jumpstart in the job market.
Beyond specialized courses, EFE reaches young people of all grade levels through various projects and interventions. The program’s goal is to ensure that every student in the county has an opportunity to explore potential career paths each year. “It’s about getting to know yourself introspectively,” said Luke. “We try to connect with our business communities to give kids more insight than they would get sitting down to Google it or just not having a clue where to start.”
Luke believes that the earlier kids can start thinking about this, the better. That’s why EFE has launched an exciting initiative called MiCareerQuest Southwest—a gathering of 6,000 eighth and ninth-graders and hundreds of local business leaders that recently convened at the Kalamazoo Expo Center during the first two days of November 2017. Employers from four diverse industry areas set up interactive displays to quickly engage teens in some of the exciting things that they might do in an average day of work.
For one day, students can speak with industry experts and test-drive careers they may not have heard of, or previously thought to be out of reach. They can try brain surgery with Stryker tools, or join a pit crew to see if they can change a tire faster than a mechanic. They might pick up a hammer to work together shingling a roof, or take off piloting a virtual plane. “What we are really doing is speed-dating with different jobs,” said Luke.
Regardless of which booths they gravitate towards, going forward into high school, these young adults will have an idea of what fields interest them personally. Last year, 97.3 percent of student attendees polled felt that MiCareerQuest Southwest inspired them to think about their future. The lessons they learned helped them visualize themselves in the workplace, enabling a new generation to start formulating a path to lasting success.
“Unless we take direct measures and have some strategies in place to help young people with this career question, we are going to get a lot of the same results,” Luke said. “I think the number one piece is recognizing that all kids have value and we want to let them understand why they’re important, what their strengths are, and how they can be successful in life,” said Luke.