Business & education: Creating the workforce we need

Local firms go the extra mile to have a positive impact on youth through education

NW Noggin volunteer and students
Courtesy of NW Noggin

Manufacturing Showcase Day, held Feb. 10 at the Clackamas Community College, is just one example of how businesses in Southwest Washington are reaching out to local youth and partnering with schools. Vancouver-based Columbia Machine has been participating in this event for several years.

“We have gotten involved because we have seen our candidate pools decline,” said Kelley Foy, HR manager at Columbia Machine. “Companies need to get more involved to showcase what manufacturing really is, and the skills that are needed.”

John LeMarte, business services consultant with WorkSource Vancouver, said that WorkSource has had a close partnership with Columbia Machine for at least a decade, in which the firm has participated in nConnect-sponsored employer activities, WorkSource-sponsored job fairs and mock interview sessions and Workforce Innovation & Opportunity Act internships. Columbia Machine also works directly with schools, such as hosting company tours for school staff and giving presentations to school classes.

“It’s up to us to show them what manufacturing has to offer,” said Foy.

“By employers sharing what it is they do, we can demonstrate that today’s manufacturing is a lean, clean process and pays more than basic fast food or office jobs,” LeMarte said.

Tony Lloyd at Columbia Machine is a perfect example of the effectiveness of this approach. He was working in the fast food industry, and was tired of the low wages and long hours. Someone asked him if he’d like to work in manufacturing, he said “yes,” and is now a production lead.

Manufacturing isn’t the only industry partnering with schools. Vancouver’s LSW Architects is passionate about reaching out to youth.

Last July, LSW, in partnership with the Evergreen School District (ESD), held a “Design Camp” for elementary students. Over the course of five days, students learned about architectural design concepts utilizing a floor plan model of their classroom and presented their favorite designs to a group of adults including LSW employees and school employees.

“Students were really thankful and seemed to enjoy the experience,” said Trevor Chayce, an architect intern at LSW.

LSW’s Design Commission program is another way they work with students. This program, which hosts 10 interns three times a year, gives students real-world projects to work on, with real-world results. For example, the most recent group of interns designed a vocational village for a client near Cape Town, South Africa. The village will house volunteers who to teach the community how to farm and sell crops. The client was so pleased with the students’ design – which included a unique farmers’ market built right into the village – it will be replicated at several sites.

“Children have really great ideas – they help us step out of our professional shoes and get a fresh perspective. So we get a lot out of it as well,” said Chayce.

He added that so far, about 150 students have participated in the Design Commission program.

Other companies are reaching out to youth through ESD’s Extended Development for Graduation and Employment (EDGE) program. This “worksite learning” program started in 2011, working with SEH America. In 2014, Corey Van Brunt, ESD’s College, Career and Technical Education district internship coordinator, expanded the program to include family and food consumer science, pre-engineering, veterinary science, pharmacies, computer science, business and marketing and more.

About 25 companies now work with EDGE, including U-Haul, Karcher North America, Columbia Springs, New Seasons Market, VA Medical Center and Ryonet. EDGE has provided internships to close to 300 students since December of 2013.

Partners in Careers’ Youth First program is another option for businesses who want to help shape our youth’s education. Through classes on financial literacy, resume preparation, communication skills and other topics, as well as mock interviews and mentors, Youth First partners with area companies to motivate students to stay in school and work toward a rewarding career.

Program coordinator Morgan Parker said that Partners in Careers works with over 150 for-profit and nonprofit organizations. Two examples illustrate the power of these types of partnerships – they can really make a difference to students who are struggling with homelessness, family issues and poverty.

Gravitate Technology and Design recently hosted an intern who was behind in credits.

“She got caught up, worked on her own project and learned a lot of basic skills,” said Parker. “Another amazing partner is Latte Da Coffee House, which almost always hires our students after internship is complete.”

Parker said that three years ago a student who was struggling with homelessness and poverty did an internship at Latte Da. She is still working there and has started at Clark College.

Businesses can also get involved with nConnect, founded in 2005 by nLight CEO Scott Keeney. nConnect’s goal is to help underrepresented students find their way into science, technology, engineering and math careers. nConnect works mostly with the Evergreen and Vancouver school districts, but is now reaching out to Battle Ground, Washougal, Kalama and Camas.

“We need to send scientists and engineers into classrooms that don’t have access to outside tutoring,” said Laura Randall, nConnect spokesperson. “Keeney allows his employees to spend an hour a week in the classroom with students.”

That type of top-level management support of the business-education partnership is key to success, said Randall.

Another crucial element is to decide how the business wants to be involved. Van Brunt referred to a “work-based learning continuum,” which can range from once-a-year speaking events to periodic company tours, to monthly job shadows to a full internship.

Skyview High School’s robotics team is a great example of industry-education partnership. According to Amanda Richter, who works in the Vancouver School District Communications Office, Vancouver Bolt and Supply and Pro-Tech Industries provide supplies, while Hewlett-Packard and US Natural Resources (headquartered in Woodland) provide mentors.

The following additional examples from Evergreen show the breadth of possibility:

John Garrison, regional distribution manager for TransCold Distribution, visited with middle school students and discussed with them the logistics of distributing products regionally and worldwide.

Volunteers from NW Noggin (a regional collaborative neuroscience outreach group) worked with students to examine human brains and understand how a brain functions, including memory, anxiety and sleep patterns.

Whole Foods Market Mill Plain partnered with high school staff to present food science and healthy eating information to several classes.

Habitat for Humanity partnered with area high school “Geometry in Construction” students to build a 1,100-square-foot home for the Vancouver Heights neighborhood.

Banfield Pet Hospital, SEH America, Columbia Springs and Silicon Forest Electronics employees participated in mock interviews with high school students.

“Understand it takes time to do it right. Start small then grow the involvement,” said Van Brunt.

If an internship is the goal, Parker emphasized that the position must match the student’s interests, and Van Brunt said that it is important to tie specific learning objectives to what the student is learning in class – this is done through completing a district worksite learning agreement.

While the ways to work with youth are varied, all the experts interviewed for this article agreed on one thing: businesses must team up with education institutions to develop a curriculum and skills that will create the workforce this region needs.

“Mentoring does take away from the bottom line, but it has a positive impact on the community,” said Van Brunt.

“We’ve all seen the tight hiring market and the lack of qualified candidates,” added Foy. “If businesses don’t get involved, we’re only going to see our problem get worse. We’re seeing more businesses getting involved but we have a long way to go.”

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Jodie Gilmore’s journalistic background includes more than 15 years of writing for the Vancouver Business Journal as well as other publications such as Northwest Women’s Journal, North Bank Magazine, American Builders Quarterly and The New American. A Master’s in Technical & Professional Writing and 20+ years in the trenches as a technical writer and online help developer round out her writing background. When not writing, she enjoys gardening and working on her small farm in the Cascade foothills.