OWATONNA — During what would have been first and second period on Oct. 9, Owatonna High School students were putting on hearing protection and gearing up to tour Pearson’s printing facilities.

The education company had already taken groups through its front offices, before bringing them back to discuss color matching and how industry changes have affected print operations.

As part of the Made in Owatonna initiative, Wednesday’s arts and communication career day aimed to show teens how their academic interests could be translated into future jobs. Students toured Pearson and Gopher Sport in the morning, learning about the business’ graphic design and communication teams. They then spent the afternoon at the West Hills Campus, meeting with other area businesses and touring the Little Theatre of Owatonna.

Before and during lunch at the Owatonna Arts Center, the 40 or so teens split up into small groups and had rotating discussions with representatives from Fame Awards, Federated Insurance, Limberg Productions and the Owatonna People’s Press.

“The reason we do the small group setting is so that we can bring more people in and give more job exposure to the smaller companies,” said Brad Meier, president of the Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism. “We think it’s pretty important that it’s not just the big companies that have these opportunities. Some of our smaller businesses really do have a need for graphic design, or whatever the case may be.”

The chamber worked in partnership with Junior Achievement, the United Way and local school districts to found the Made in Owatonna program five years back. Now that same coalition, dubbed Steele Co. Works, has multiple workforce readiness initiatives, including job shadowing and internships.

“We had an overall idea that we thought would have a great impact on our students,” said Tate Cummins, a business education teacher at Owatonna High School. “In the past, you would have a field trip and take your whole class, and some students were forced to go. Now, we have about 40 students from the high school who have chosen to come learn more about these career fields.”

Steele Co. Works markets the program to juniors and seniors at Owatonna High School and the Owatonna Alternative Learning Center, as well as Blooming Prairie and Medford high schools. Typically, between 40 and 60 students sign up for each of the Made in Owatonna days, which happen three times a year and focus on different career fields.

“The most popular seems to be healthcare,” said Sara Baird, a teacher at Owatonna High School. “We have a lot of students interested in that. Otherwise, they seem to be about equal.”

Baird leads a mentorship class at the school, which pairs students with a business mentor for one hour, four days a week.

“They learn about business practices and then learn about the career,” said Baird, who added that she is always looking for more mentors. “I’m in my second year in this position, so I’m trying to build up again what our previous coordinator had.”

As part of the mentorship program, Baird also teaches students communication and other fundamental workplace skills, which she noted they put to use during Made in Owatonna days through networking with adults in the community.

After small group sessions at the arts center, everyone stayed for lunch and teens were given a more informal opportunity to ask questions and get to know business leaders. Meier said Made in Owatonna is a unique program in that it draws a broader cross-section of students than some of Steele Co. Works’ other workforce development programs, which target teens who are undecided about what they’d like to do after high school.

“It may be kids who are planning to go to a four-year school, they have a plan for after they graduate. [Made in Owatonna] gives them an idea of what job opportunities in their career field exist here, and that’s important because we want them to come back some day,” Meier explained. “Even though they all say they’re going to leave and never come back, a lot of them do.”

Meier also noted that businesses are eager to be involved in order to increase their visibility with potential future employees. “There’s a need for a quality workforce, and they know that this is kind of a long-term play for them,” he explained.

Cummins agreed, saying, “We want [students] to feel like they’re part of the Owatonna business community.”

Doug Voss, general manager of Fame Awards, met with teens during the small group sessions and frequently employs high school students during the summer.

“Basically everybody I’ve ever employed has been from Owatonna,” he noted. “It’s been really enjoyable to have a kid who doesn’t know anything and by the end of the summer, they’re making things.”

Fame uses computer graphics to help generate products from trophies to tumblers. For students with an artistic bent, Voss said that computer graphics can be a related career with a fair amount of security. “The world of graphics has got 10,000 different applications, anywhere from websites to cell phone applications,” said Voss, who showed students how to compose a plaque during the event.

Baird agreed that the event is a chance for students to explore how certain passions may translate into jobs. “Students are seeing how [art] can be applied in not necessarily just becoming an artist. They can apply it to different careers,” she said.

Teens will be able to participate in two more Made in Owatonna days later in the school year, coming up this winter and spring. For more information, visit www.owatonna.org/workforce.

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