Dozens of business owners and high school staff members, along with city representatives and school board members, braved the cold on Monday morning to put their heads together to come up with ways to better connect students with local jobs.
When the TORCH program received a grant from Minnesota WorkForce this fall to help connect juniors and seniors with internships that could lead to future job opportunities, the district thought that meeting with local businesspeople to get their input might not be such a bad idea.
“We as a school district are prepared to be malleable,” said Joel Leer, principal of Northfield High School. “We are prepared to make adjustments to the system to better serve the needs of employers.”
One barrier to boosting local employment and placing students in jobs identified at the summit was the general lack of knowledge about career opportunities in Northfield, as well as misconceptions regarding what different types of jobs actually entail.
“No longer do we only need people to put pipes in the ground,” said Jesse Streitz of Streitz Heating and Cooling, Inc. “There is so much electronics involved now. But kids just see the physical work. We’re finding that’s getting to be a real problem.”
Students that may be interested in computer and electrical systems don’t necessarily put that interest together with furnaces and air conditioners, which reduces Streitz’s pool of qualified applicants and prevents students from pursuing work with a local employer.
Another more underlying issue acknowledged by several business owners and high school staff members is the stigma surrounding technical college perpetuated by the Northfield community.
“It’s implied that if you don’t go to a four-year college, you have failed,” said Streitz, who used to teach industrial technology at the high school.
This engrained cultural pressure to attend a four-year school inadvertently sets many students up for trouble down the road when they drop out of school or graduate still not knowing what career path to pursue.
“We have a very high percentage of kids going to two- and four-year schools, but the number actually completing the degrees is much lower,” said Leer.
Teddy Gelderman, co-coordinator of the TORCH program noted, “We work with kids that have no idea what they want to do and just pick a career arbitrarily.”
To help students identify interests earlier and experiment with career options while still in high school, the district is considering adjusting curriculum to make classes more job-oriented and have students choose courses accordingly. Jeff Pesta, the principal at Northfield Middle School, is also contemplating having parent-teacher conferences for eighth-grade students at the high school in the spring and encouraging students and parents to talk about results from a career-related assessment taken by the kids.
Though no specific action steps were nailed down at the meeting, both the district and local businesses felt good about getting the ball rolling.
“This is a good first step,” said Streitz.
Reach reporter Erin O’Neill in Faribault at 333-3132 or in Northfield at 645-1115, or follow her on Twitter.com @ReporterONeill.