Opening eyes to the future
By Madelynn Coldiron
It was an eclectic gathering in the Henderson County High School auxiliary gym: bankers, contractors, retail managers, university types, manufacturers and even coal mining employees. And they weren’t there to watch a basketball game.
Instead, they were there to talk careers with students, some of whom will be their employees in the future. The Dec. 8 event was an open house sponsored by the high school’s Career and Technical Education Unit. The setup closely resembles a job fair, although besides employers, tables also were set up by colleges and universities, military recruiters and the school’s vocational clubs.
PHOTO: Kim Humphrey, director of community programs for Riverview Coal, LLC, answers questions from Henderson County High School students about careers in the coal mining industry. She offered students small (washed) pieces of coal, along with key chains and plastic "hard hats."
“It’s an opportunity for our students to talk to local business and industry representatives to get an idea of which kinds of jobs they’re going to have available to them in the future, what they need to do in order to prepare for those jobs, what they could be doing now while they’re in high school with the programs we offer to prepare for those different jobs,” said Brian Bailey, who coordinates student transitions and career and technical education at the school.
The goal, he said, is to make sure students get into postsecondary programs that will prepare them for jobs or give them the training they need in high school to enable them to go straight into the work force.
“Hopefully, after graduation, I’m going to see some of these students in my office,” said Debbie Cox, human resources manager for GMS, a mine repair and maintenance company.
Courtney Gibson, secretary of the school’s Future Business Leaders of America, said events like this open the eyes of students. She said she has learned “to be proactive and to start now. The earlier you start and get a grasp of things, the better off you will be in the adult world.”
A little more than half the high school’s nearly 2,000 students attended the open house, milling around the employer tables set up around the gym’s perimeter. While students had serious questions for participants, the employers offering “freebies” tended to attract the most attention.
“Is that real coal?” was a frequent question that Kim Humphrey got. Humphrey, director of community programs for Riverview Coal, LLC, offered students a sample from the pile of small (washed) pieces of coal on her table, along with key chains and plastic “hard hats.”
Some students had family members who have worked in the mines, but were still surprised to learn of the variety of jobs available, she said, including engineering and health care at the mine’s on-site clinic.
Henderson County High School requires all students to take at least one course in the Career and Technical Education Unit; health sciences are the most popular, Bailey said. Seniors have the opportunity to get internships in their field or compete for co-op jobs, which are highly sought-after.
“It’s a competitive thing, just like they would be facing in the job market,” he said.
“We’re trying to get these kids to go from a high school internship to a college co-op program where they can work full time,” said Dick Wolfe, information technology manager for Accuride Corp.’s Henderson plant. “The goal is a nice, smooth transition from high school internship to college co-op to full-time employment.”
The IT director of the business’ main office in Evansville is a Henderson County High School graduate, he noted, while a current student is working as an intern.
“The kids that have worked for us have been very well-prepared. Most of them have more certifications than I do but they haven’t had hands-on experience,” Wolfe said.
The event is beneficial for both student and employer, said Jason Haynes, a representative of Frontier-Kemper Constructor, an underground mining contractor. “A lot of kids didn’t even know we were here in the tri-state area,” he said. “A lot of kids seem really, really interested.”
River Creamer, a welding student in the Career and Technical Education Unit, was asking Haynes about internship opportunities. “I’m getting used to the companies and getting more information about them so I can find one that suits me,” he said.
Victor Doty, who heads the unit, said employers have told him that the students don’t hesitate to ask them questions, “and ask the right questions.”
The open house for employers strengthens the career and technical programs in other ways, he said. When students hear directly from employers about what they’re looking for and what skills they want from their employees, Doty said, “It offers a lot of validity to what we do in the classroom.”
The Career and Technical Education Unit, which occupies a building connected to the main high school, has 13 programs, from agriculture and health sciences to construction technology and pre-engineering. The high school uses both Project Lead the Way and High Schools that Work.
Each program has its own advisory committee that ensures the coursework keeps up with changes in the field, said Doty. This helps the school provide the right tools students need to develop skills for the work force, such as up-to-date software for graphic arts and high-tech cutting torches for welding.
Employers, he said, “are very happy with the skills we provide.”