Facing low unemployment and declining numbers of young workers, businesses are going back to high school.
Collaborations: From left, student Abbaysinnia Newton; Textron recruiter and RPM Human Resources Business Partner Emily Gussert; RPM Principal Jason Moore; and student Michael Hannah
Ask any business owner or manager what keeps them awake at night, and somewhere on the list – near or at the top – is finding enough qualified workers. Georgia’s riding the national boom with an unemployment rate of 3.2 percent as of last fall, and demographic trends are making it even harder to recruit, train and keep employees.
Some educators respond that there’s a workforce just waiting to be trained, if you look down the pipeline a bit – to high schools. So schools and businesses have formed innovative partnerships targeting K-12 students that aim to secure a reliable, educated workforce and provide students with opportunities for a stable future. That might mean employment after high school, further study at a technical or four-year-college, enrollment in the military or a combination of these career paths.
State School Superintendent Richard Woods says those partnerships are what education should be about. “Our mission is really to prepare our kids for life and not a test,” he says. “It’s time to expand opportunities for our children. We know that one size does not fit all.”
Indeed, there are a number of workforce development initiatives in K-12 schools across the state, from charter-school college and career academies like the Kia-supported THINC in Troup County to the Great Promise Partnership (GPP) programs with Shaw Industries in Dalton and Carrier and Caterpillar in Clarke County. GPP was launched by the Department of Community Affairs in 2013 to help at-risk students finish high school while getting work experience.
The granddaddy of collaborations between business and K-12 schools, though, is 12 For Life, a cooperative education partnership between Carroll County Schools and Southwire, the wire and cable manufacturer. Students receive classroom instruction and also work four-hour shifts inside the manufacturing plant, making regular wages and benefiting from one-on-one support from Southwire employees. More than 1,200 students have graduated from 12 For Life since it started in 2007, and Georgia’s GPP is based on the program.
That’s a success story on its own. But Southwire’s initiative has spawned other collaborations – in Augusta, for example, the RPM (Reaching Potential Through Manufacturing) program involving a partnership between Richmond County Schools and Textron Specialized Vehicles, is a direct descendent of 12 For Life.
“There is No Backup”
At RPM, high-school students attend classes for four hours and earn an hourly wage working a four-hour shift making components for Textron’s vehicles, like E-Z-GO golf carts, in a hybrid facility that’s part classrooms, part work floor.
Textron has expanded its capabilities at the average rate of more than 10 percent a year since 2010 – it’s the city’s largest manufacturing employer – and it was concerned about the workforce pinch. About 70 percent of its employees come from Richmond County schools, says RPM principal Jason Moore. But a few years ago, the graduation rate was below that.
“They started to dig into the data and find out a lot of kids had an either-or choice: Either go to school and get their diploma, or get a job at a fast food place because they were … taking care of children or helping out their [family] because of extreme poverty,” says Moore. Textron execs took a field trip to Southwire and came back determined to start a school in Augusta. County School Superintendent Angela Pringle was on board, and the first classes – and work shifts – began in 2016 with 75 of the most at-risk students in an old textbook warehouse that was converted to a school/plant.
Textron decided to have the kids work on small parts, doing sub-assembly to ensure safety. Then they turned over the keys, so to speak. “My initial question when we were trying to get this going was, ‘What’s the backup plan? Who’s making these parts behind us?’ And they said, ‘There is no backup plan. Nobody else,’” says Moore. “And this is the only place in their whole operation where these parts [are made]. The kids make all the brake pedals that go into all their vehicles.” They also manufacture tail lights, steering columns, battery systems, electronics and transmission components.
It’s an essential lesson for the students in showing up, says Moore, because the lines can’t go down. Students in that first class were averaging about 25 days absent each year before they enrolled at RPM. After? Six days.
“We want to make sure they understand that you have to be at work on time, you have to stay at work the whole time, you have to come to work when you don’t feel good,” Moore says. The day starts with text messages and phone calls to encourage attendance. Then first shift starts with a pre-shift meeting while second shift goes to classes. It’s a true partnership between teachers and Textron employees.
“Their classroom is the work floor,” says Moore of the Textron supervisors. “They’re instructors. They may not have a teaching certificate, but they are the experts in the industry teaching these kids some valuable skills.”
Joining forces benefits schools, businesses and students, says Steve Dolinger, president of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education and a former superintendent of Fulton County Schools. “Both school systems and businesses are understanding that neither one can work on their talent and workforce pipelines alone,” he says. “They’re finding out that together they’re stronger in helping each other.”
For students, that means seeing the relevance of what they learn in class. Kids aren’t afraid of rigorous coursework, Dolinger says, as long as they see how that knowledge is actually applied on the job.
The RPM program also includes other kinds of education to equip these students for success. Business and community partners offer what Moore describes as “character education,” focusing on things such as having healthy relationships, financial literacy and even yoga. “Which may seem a little different, but it’s working on mindfulness, anger management and coping skills,” Moore says.
Since its inception through the end of 2018, 98 students have graduated from RPM. Moore says about 33 are working at Textron, some of whom have been there almost two years. Others have gone to work for John Deere, Amazon, UPS and FedEx. And some have joined the military or enrolled in technical colleges. RPM works with Jobs for Georgia’s Graduates, a partnership between schools, businesses, communities and the Georgia Department of Labor that helps with the school-to-work transition, to teach soft skills and provide job placements.
“Once we have them back on track, we work really hard to make sure they have a plan when they leave us,” Moore says.
“It’s Going to Take All of Us”
Thanks to Southwire’s 12 For Life, Carroll County had a prime example of a successful partnership that helped a select group of high school students. But county leaders wanted each and every student in school to be successful. In 2015, the Carrollton-Carroll County Education Collaborative (CCEC) launched with the goal of ensuring that all high school students graduate ready to be either enrolled, enlisted in military service or employed.
Rather than a program, the CCEC is centered on a process: Multiple organizations working together to marshal community resources and meet that goal. As Melanie McClellan, director of community engagement at University of West Georgia (UWG), tells it, leaders including those from UWG, West Georgia Technical College, local school systems, the chamber of commerce and the county commission “came together and basically said that if we are going to address education issues in Carroll County, it’s going to take all of us. We can’t keep working in our separate silos.”
CCEC created four teams aligned with major developmental themes in kids’ lives and learning, from pre-K through college.
• Early Learning team, from birth to five years old, which focuses on getting kids ready for kindergarten (a key predictor of success later on)
• Foundations team, for elementary school students, which focuses on literacy and math skills (specifically third-grade reading level and getting kids algebra-ready)
• Explorations team, for middle school to high school, which gets kids thinking about their personal plans and possible careers as well as preparing for high school success
• Independence team, for students graduating from high school, which focuses on the goal of being enrolled, enlisted or employed within four years.
Programs and opportunities exist within each area, from a $74,000 grant that UWG, city schools and the Ferst Foundation for Childhood Literacy will use for early language and literacy work, to the Eighth-Grade Career Expo at UWG and West Georgia Tech that invites more than 1,600 students to visit the campuses and learn more about career options from instructors and businesspeople. Other achievements that CCEC has helped foster include making dual enrollment available for all students and extending mentoring to middle and high school students in the county.
CCEC’s mission is to bring these potential partners together and help them form the relationships that will maximize the resources for students. “We didn’t implement any brand of programs,” says John Green, former director of CCEC who’s now spearheading its expansion into neighboring counties. “We just accentuated the opportunities that were in place.”
For example, the rise in dual enrollment was fostered by bringing together the university, technical college and the school systems to hash out obstacles. “That may not sound like a big deal, but that’s a huge deal,” says McClellan. It could be as simple as realizing that class schedules don’t align, or a shift in attitude from competing for students to a collaboration that encourages them to choose what’s right for them.
“When you start talking to one another, you can break down those barriers when you finally say, ‘Okay, let’s focus on the kids and not just the adult needs,’” says Dolinger, who notes that one change came about over AP classes. Some teachers worried they could lose their AP students to dual enrollment, so UWG decided to certify AP teachers as adjunct instructors, allowing them to continue to teach the AP courses at their high schools, while counting them as college courses for dual enrollment students.
Three New R's
CCEC’s process is one that the organization believes can work regionally, spreading to Douglas, Heard, Coweta and Harralson counties. In each area, the programs will be unique. (Green echoes the point that one size doesn’t fit all. Or, as he says, just as each student is unique, so is each community.)
The model relies on three new Rs: relationships, resources and results. Once everyone aligns on the goal of getting high school students enrolled, enlisted or employed, then communities begin to look at the relationships that already exist across institutions and which relationships need to be fostered. “You always want to have some champions in your community,” says Green.
When McClellan took on the role of director, she wanted to know what was working well. “Everybody said it was the networking, the collaboration, the relationships, the fact that we all now know who to call,” she says. “It’s not just educators talking to each other. It’s business people in the room, and civic leaders and some of the county commission. … By working together, we can bring in more resources and have much more complete solutions.”
RPM’s Moore agrees that relationships make his school work. As a principal, he was used to hearing businesses lament that high school graduates weren’t work ready. But Textron pitched in to make it happen.
“I’m here every day with Textron, their HR department, safety managers, vice presidents, ops managers, supervisors,” he says. “I can see and they can tell me what the need is and what we need to work on from the school side. [And] they get to see the challenges the school system faces. … It’s not just YOU have to do this, [it’s] WE have to do this.”
These kinds of efforts have also meant some real-life education for teachers and counselors. For example, Superintendent Woods says it’s important for educators to understand terms like ROI, since educators need to be able to communicate what these partnerships can do.
One challenge for educators is that they’re stuck in school buildings, says Barbara Wall, Georgia’s director of Career, Technical and Agricultural Education (CTAE). That makes it harder to form those relationships. To get past that, some teachers go to work in the summer, doing short externships at work sites. Wall recently spent three days working at CSX, and a colleague did an externship at a construction company. “She was [amazed] at the high-level math within that industry,” Wall says.
Georgia is responding with programs that provide science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM) certification for schools and an economic development partnership designation for school districts; both involve schools working with industry.
“All of this has helped Georgia over the last eight to 10 years,” says Dolinger. “We used to have the brand that we were last – we’re not any longer. We’re increasing graduation rates because kids see it’s relevant to their future plans.”