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Getting kids to think about their futures

By Chris Umscheid
North Liberty Leader
OXFORD— Kids ask a lot of questions. Two questions they commonly ask their parents and teachers are, “Why do I have to learn this?” and, “When will I ever use this?”
The Workplace Learning Connection (WLC) at Kirkwood Community College seeks to bridge the gap between school and work to bring relevance to subjects and answer those questions.
Laurie Worden, associate director of the WLC, briefed the Clear Creek Amana (CCA) Community School District’s Board of Education on programs offered to CCA students.
“We need to retain our talent and show them what’s available in our own backyard,” Worden said at the board’s June 15 meeting in Oxford. “We want our young people to know about their options.”
The WLC option has been available since 1998, initiated by those passionate about finding ways to encourage future workforce development, Worden added.
While educators and employers were making contact with each other to determine needs and priorities, “there was a need for a professionally staffed intermediary,” she added.
The result was the WLC, a model program employing a work-based learning system which could be replicated across the state. The WLC was founded as a not-for-profit partnership of the Grant Wood Area Education Agency (GWAEA) and Kirkwood Community College (Kirkwood) to serve the college’s seven-county area.
The WLC’s role is to make high-quality, age-appropriate career connections while educators facilitate student learning in order to prepare for future careers. Meanwhile, employers have the role of sharing how they provide services and/or produce goods within the context of careers.
Worden said the WLC believes in a vibrant community with a workforce ready for a changing world. Its mission is to support the next generation as they move through the educational system and into the world of work. Worden added the WLC’s “main thing” is establishing meaningful connections between employers and the educational system, which helps students become better informed on career choices and better prepared for life and life-long learning.
Educators are then better able to focus on their “main thing,” facilitating student learning, while employers are able to concentrate on providing goods and services and being a community partner.
The WLC became a full department of Kirkwood five years ago, Worden noted.
Elementary level programs provide basic career information as professionals visit the classroom to connect school skills to the workplace with an emphasis on being on time, ready to work, doing your best and working hard, as well as the ever-important concept of working and playing nicely with others. These traits are often referred to as soft skills or even essential 21st century skills.
In the middle school years, the WLC shifts its focus to helping kids discover and begin planning for career pathways, or matching their interests with an educational plan that could lead to a future career. It’s not just practical, Worden said. The state of Iowa mandates eighth grade students to have a four-year plan as they enter high school. Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) take on an added emphasis with speakers and worksite tours.
However, it is the Financial Literacy Fair that really opens eyes for the younger generation, she said.
Eighth graders select a career and try to develop a budget based on the average anticipated wages. They quickly find out the need to balance needs such as housing, food, and utilities against wants such as entertainment and luxuries.
“They have to retire their college debt, they have to manage their home, their vehicle, insurance, savings…basically every facet of adult life,” she emphasized.
As freshmen, the WLC provides insight into business etiquette, resume’ writing and workplace communication as professionals work with the students and conduct mock interviews.
Sophomores can attend career fairs to further refine their pathway. Job shadowing opportunities also become available from sophomore through senior years, which allow students to get a first-hand look at a career field either as an individual or in a group. The culmination of these programs is an opportunity for an internship.
The WLC also facilitates professional development for teachers with programs such as Teacher@Work, which is a 40-hour opportunity for teachers to see how the workplace applies to and relates to their curriculum. Teachers are able to obtain continuing education credits for participating.
WLC is funded approximately 23 percent by the schools in Kirkwood’s area with the lion’s share of the money coming from state and federal grants (46 percent). The balance is from GWAEA (five percent), local grants/Johnson County Board of Supervisors contributions (nine percent), professional fees (two percent) and Kirkwood (15 percent).
The investment is paying off, Worden said.
“What we do really makes an impact on young peoples’ decisions about postsecondary education and when they decide on where they want to live and work,” she added.
Nearly 89 percent of the students who went through the internship program and nearly 92 percent of those who did a job shadow said, “I am much better informed about opportunities here,” Worden noted.
“It’s really making an influence on their decisions,” she said. “We want our local communities to flourish and we do need people to choose to live and work here. We think that’s a pretty important part of our work as well.”
For more information about the WLC visit its website: www.kirkwood.edu/wlc.