Jumpstarting a Career

MilesHarrisonMiles, who impressed me as being someone a great deal older than seventeen, someone far beyond high school, stood confident and poised before three of his bosses, his teacher, and me. He was explaining the computer inventory system at the USDA Soil Erosion Lab (housed on the Purdue University campus) that it is his responsibility to maintain. Miles is a senior in high school, earning six credit hours this year through on-the-job training combined with career preparation classes at school. Here is what he does during the on-the-job component of his Interdisciplinary Cooperative Education (I.C.E.) program:

• Inventories the computers
• Installs and updates anti-virus software
• Installs the script that automatically updates the inventory of computer hardware
• Maintains an intranet website (which he developed) for use by all groups and individuals at the Soil Erosion lab
• Logs the usage of the fleet of vans the facility operates

He works from noon to about 4:00 PM every day as an I.T. intern, a job he found through the I.C.E. program at his high school. State guidelines mandate that I.C.E. students work a minimum of 15 hours a week; some work much more than that.

His friend works nearby at the USDA Livestock Behavioral Research Unit. Sometimes Nestor is handing piglets, and sometimes, seated in high back, cushioned, faux leather chair, he enters research data into a computer, analyzes that data, and confers with the senior researcher who is his supervisor about what the data reveals. Nestor is an I.C.E. student, too.

Recently I accompanied the I.C.E. teachers from the two high schools in my district on their rounds of local businesses and institutions where their students are employed. The students’ jobs could be in any one of sixteen career clusters that include finance, childcare, health systems, and manufacturing among others.

P1040427Besides the two facilities mentioned above, I visited a chiropractic office where Alyna works the front desk. She greets patients, answers the phone, prepares the day’s schedule, processes payments, and enters patient data into the computer system. At a Ford dealership, I watched Jordan and Andrew rotate tires on a truck. They also do oil changes and other routine procedures and even occasionally are assigned to do a brake job. At Dairy Queen, Ariana talked to me about her responsibilities as a crew leader, and at the end of our conversation, she served her teacher and me a chocolate dipped cone (my treat).

About ninety students in the two high schools combined take advantage of the I.C.E. program every year. They are kids who have a strong work ethic, have maintained good grades and a good attendance record at school, and have an interest in a specific career field—or think they do. Working half-days while they’re in high school gives these students a chance to explore a career field and find out if it’s really for them—before they’ve committed time and money to a post-graduate training program. They earn money while they work, and they interact with adults and develop the kinds of job skills—like responsibility, punctuality, and teamwork—that will serve them well no matter what they do in the future.

Some students already have a job when they enroll in I.C.E., and several told me they found it through networking. Others turn to the teacher, whose challenge is to match the students with their career interests. That was the case for Miles, the I.T. intern, and for Nestor, the student working at USDA. While talking to Nestor, his teacher discovered that he had a love for animals, so she contacted USDA, which had a position just right for his interests and talents.

Teachers supervise students employed at banks and daycares, in residence halls at Purdue, and for trucking companies. I.C.E. students work for veterinarians, in restaurants, for major manufacturers, in health care facilities, and for construction firms. In short, they’re everywhere.

I saw six of these kids on the job, and one commonality I observed is this: They all have uncommonly good communication skills. Each of these students was articulate, poised, and comfortable talking to me. The topic was one they knew well. They were all proud of their ability to do their job and eager to share their experience. They exhibited none of the awkwardness kids often display in speeches they give in English class. “I’m really shy,” Alyna told me, “but this job has taught me how to talk to people.” Indeed, she seemed quite at ease as she checked clients in and took payment from others in the clinic where she worked.

Being able to communicate with team members is even more important than being able to talk to someone like me about the program. Jordan stressed that when he talked about working with a crew in his bay. “You have to know when and how to ask for help. You don’t want to look stupid, but you’ve got to know when to ask for help so you don’t screw up.”

Miles explained that he has to communicate with people from a variety of cultures for whom English may or may not be the native language. English sometimes isn’t even the language of the software these scientists use, yet it is Miles’ job to facilitate the efficient use of the computers. Miles has to communicate effectively with all of the researchers and employees at his facility; his job is not just about installing software or fixing glitches.

Another commonality: These students are all developing the critical thinking skills that are essential to success in any endeavor. Whether it’s figuring out a software installation problem, working in tandem with a crew, or listening to a patient’s problem and scheduling appropriately, the students have to make judgment calls. That takes confidence, and it is confidence that these students are building through their on-the-job training.

Often the students take introductory courses early in their high school years and then, as seniors, pursue employment and the career exploration study that I.C.E. involves. Their experience often translates into a post-high school position. Jordan, for example, is out of high school now. He just happened to be on the job and a member of Andrew’s crew the day I visited the Ford dealership. Jordan explained that he had taken the automotive technology courses offered in high school, spent his senior year in the I.C.E. course, and now is employed half time while he attends advanced classes in Automotive Technology at our community college.

“I got hired at 17 because I was in the I.C.E. program,” he told me. “It made me more competitive than other people.”

P1040425The I.C.E. experience doesn’t always lead to a career in the same field. Andrew, for example, is planning to switch fields and become an electrician. But his employment in the automotive industry has clarified his career goals. “Not only that,” he said, talking to me while he worked on the truck’s tires, “the job has given me life skills.”

Ariana said the same thing. I asked her what the benefit of the I.C.E. program—in her case, working at Dairy Queen—has been. After all, she’s already enlisted in the Army and is on a trajectory to become a “multiple launch rocket systems specialist.” Dairy Queen seems some distance from that career pathway. She was quick to reply. “It’s taught me responsibility,” she said. “And discipline. Especially discipline.”

While their teacher grades their classroom work, which involves formal standards-based study of topics such as financial literacy, legal issues, and ethical behavior—all of which are tied to SCANS foundational skills—it is the employer who assesses the students on a quarterly basis and issues a performance grade. That grade is reality-based. After all, these jobs are for real, and the employers have customers and clients whose satisfaction is paramount.

I don’t think people in general know much about programs like I.C.E. High school students—at least those not involved in the I.C.E. program—typically think I.C.E. is just a way to get out of school in the afternoon. Admittedly, some of the students I talked to were not wild about the traditional high school setting—sitting in desks, listening to teachers, learning from books—and vastly prefer the “hands-on” experience they enjoy with I.C.E. But not one of the students I interviewed said that getting out of school early was a motivating factor in joining the program. Their responses were much more mature than that.

In Miles’ case, one benefit was the glimpse he’s had of the level of education needed in and beyond college for the various positions that exist in Information Technology. He’s developed a practical understanding of the distinction between training in Computer Information Technology and schooling in Computer Science. “Enrolling in I.C.E is one of the best decisions I’ve made,” he told me.

In fact, that’s what they all said.

These days we hear a lot about preparing our students to be “College and Career Ready.” The Common Core and other standards systems are heavy on the college part, but we don’t hear much about the career side of the equation. I.C.E. is an exception. These students are indeed ready to launch their careers—and that means both post-high school training (the college side) and post-high school employment (the career side).

I.C.E. isn’t for everyone, but neither is the traditional 4-year program for everyone. Students like Miles, Andrew, Alyna, and the others are ready for the responsibilities of employment in their chosen fields, and they’re jumpstarting their careers by enrolling in I.C.E.

I have to wonder if a lot of other kids are missing the boat by not taking advantage of this remarkable opportunity.

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