Opportunities for kids

Students at the Green Mountain Technology and Career Center work on a car’s exhaust system. Co-op placement programs give high school students opportunities to stand head and shoulders above their competition after they graduate.

File photo by Tom Kearney

Delivering newspapers, flipping burgers, waiting tables or folding T-shirt after T-shirt are all familiar first jobs for teenagers who want to make money while in school.

For some high school students, however, first jobs in their chosen fields not only provide pocket money, but put them a few steps ahead on the careers to which they aspire.

Co-op placement programs give high school students opportunities to stand head and shoulders above their competition after they graduate.

In many cases, those students earn certificates and qualifications that make them competitive in the workforce before they graduate, says Mallery Daudelin, co-op coordinator at the Green Mountain Technology and Career Center in Hyde Park.

Green Mountain Tech, one of the state’s 16 technical education centers, has 13 job placement programs for its hardest-working and highest-achieving students, Daudelin said.

It has placed students with area companies doing the work that those students want to do for the last 30 years, she said.

Right now, there are students in all 13 of those programs. They include heating, ventilation and air conditioning; automotive technology; culinary arts; computer networking technology; and forestry and land management, Daudelin said.

Every student in the tech center’s co-op programs is paid for his or her work.

When it comes to getting work after graduation, you can’t beat actual, on-the-job experience, Daudelin said.

“It gets their hands doing exactly the work that they’re expected to do when they leave here. It gives them the advantage of getting them out into the field and working with the people they’re going to be working with,” she said.

One co-op program takes qualified sophomores, but the others are open only to juniors and seniors, Daudelin said.

‘Soft skills’

Instructors choose which students they think should be propelled to a co-op program, based on performance in class.

Students’ grades need to be high to be considered for a co-op placement, and they need to show that they can handle a heavier workload than their peers.

They need to show that they can respect industry safety rules, and they need a heavy dose of what Daudelin calls “soft skills.”

“Attendance, able to take criticism without getting defensive, are they showing up in the right clothes?” she said, listing examples.

“They take initiative. They produce quality work. They ask for additional work when they’re done. They respect their work environments. They’re able to cooperate socially and show emotional control in trying situations, and work well as a team,” Daudelin said.

“We’ve found from a lot of employers, they want a student that they’re not going to have to babysit,” she said.

Students who participate in co-op programs come to school on Monday to keep up with their academic requirements.

“Tuesday through Friday, they’ll be full-time at their co-op,” Daudelin said.

That’s a lot of responsibility, and not every high school kid is cut out for the challenge, she said.

Students who don’t qualify for a co-op placement can still qualify to job-shadow, Daudelin said.

Students love their co-op work, she said.

“I think it’s kind of why they stick with it. They really like that they’re treated as adults, and they’re learning a trade or a skill that they see themselves doing for a career. It’s not like, ‘Oh, I’m taking this calculus class and I have no idea why I’ll ever use it,’” she said.

Returning the favor

Todd Phelps is parts and service director for Lamoille Valley Ford in Hardwick, and graduated from Green Mountain Technology and Career Center in 1991. He was part of a co-op program in automotive technology there, and credits the program with his career development.

He’s been returning the favor, too. Phelps says he’s hired about 15 former Green Mountain Tech co-op students full-time.

“They’ve been a great help to us,” he said.

The focus is on teaching them.

“When they first get to us, we usually have them work with a senior master technician and teach them the basics of how the business is run, from getting a repair order, bringing a vehicle into the shop, setting it up on the lift safely, doing basic stuff such as oil changes, tire rotation, customer satisfaction,” Phelps said.

He says hands-on work in the auto-tech industry is “very, very important” to building a career.

“One, to make sure you know you like it, and two, that you’re capable of doing it. It’s not an easy job,” he said.

Ben Rich, a Green Mountain Tech student who works in a co-op placement at Lamoille Valley Ford, is on track to being hired there full time once he completes a Ford program in Maine.

Where do kids stand?

The Alchemist Foundation — a nonprofit founded by John and Jen Kimmich, the couple behind The Alchemist brewery operations in Stowe and Waterbury — is working to find out how many local companies employ high school students, and what opportunities there are to further teens’ budding careers.

The nonprofit was founded in 2016, but even before that, The Alchemist was giving scholarships to area kids who wanted to go on to higher education, said Liz Schlegel, executive director of the Alchemist Foundation.

Students at Stowe High School, Peoples Academy, Harwood Union High School, Lamoille Union High School and Green Mountain Technology and Career Center are eligible for scholarships.

It wasn’t long before the foundation wanted to go beyond helping students with higher education goals. Some students don’t go on to college, university, the military or another training program, and Schlegel said the foundation wanted to find out how it could help them.

The first step is finding out where they’re finding work, and the Alchemist Foundation has put together a survey, asking employers where they find people to fill jobs, and whether they hire high school students.

Around 350 kids, combined, graduate from those five high schools every year, and about 200 go on to higher education or the military, Schlegel said.

“We started digging into the numbers of people who go on to college or a training program. We realize lots of people go straight into the workforce,” Schlegel said.

“That got us on, ‘What are those young folks doing, when they leave high school?’ The flip side of that is, you have all sorts of employers who are really looking to find good people. You see help-wanted signs everywhere. There are a lot of entry-level jobs that people can’t fill,” Schlegel said.

“You have a ton of folks who are going into the workforce. You have a lot of employers who need people. How might we connect the dots between those people?” Schlegel said.

The survey also asks whether businesses would be willing to host high schoolers for job-shadow programs, or attend educational sessions that teach students about what they do.

The survey is “taking the temperature of all the businesses in these communities, or as many as we can get to fill out the survey. (It asks) ‘What are you thinking about this? Are you thinking about high schoolers at all? If you are thinking about them, and you know that it’s going to be a good chunk of them who are going to go straight into the workforce, you might want to think about how you could connect with them and start saying, ‘Maybe, if you come see it, you might get a little excited that we make rowing machines, or peanut butter.’ There are a lot of great businesses in our communities, and a lot of high schoolers don’t know that,” Schlegel said.

“Communities need young people. It’s a big part of what makes communities vibrant,” and young people need to know there are paths available to them, Schlegel said.

“They can hear from employers about what matters and what kind of skills are required. Most adolescents don’t actually get to see what people do all day. It’s just part of the way the world works now,” she said.

First jobs matter

Those first jobs are key to success later in life, and as more and more adults stay in entry-level positions, it can be difficult for teens to get the work experience that will be key as they try to build careers.

The idea that entry-level jobs lead to better and better work is “the first step toward a successful two-way street,” Schlegel said. “People come in ready to work hard and be like, ‘Oh, yeah, I guess I’m washing dishes at this restaurant, but it’s going to lead to something,’ because they have a little more understanding of the big picture than they had otherwise,” she said.

The survey began in early February, and can be found at bit.ly/AlchemistEmployerSurvey.

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