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Superintendent Johnson and Community College President Hans announce Career Pathways Month

Hailey Driscoll, a junior at North Wake College and Career Academy, has been interested in culinary arts since she was a child when she was inspired by her mother’s career as a chef. Last year, Driscoll transferred from a traditional public high school to North Wake, a new Wake Forest school that formed from a relationship between Wake Technical Community College and Wake County Public Schools. There, Driscoll had a chance to pursue her childhood dream.

“For a little bit I wasn’t too sure what I wanted to do for my future,” Driscoll said. “So [my mom] was like, ‘Give this school a shot, and if you don’t like it, you can go back to Wake Forest.’ After my first year here, I wanted to stay. Chef was an amazing mentor.”

Driscoll is now planning to spend a 13th year at Wake Technical Community College to work towards her associate degree in culinary arts. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson and N.C. Community College System President Peter Hans visited North Wake Monday to lift up career pathways like Driscoll’s and declare February Career Pathways Month. 

Superintendent Johnson and Community College President Hans talk with culinary arts instructor Stephanie Nikolic at North Wake College and Career Academy. Liz Bell/EducationNC

Johnson said he wants students across North Carolina to know that attending a four-year institution after high school is not the only option for a successful career. He said collaboration between K-12 public school systems and the community college system is necessary to give students exposure to several career options while still in middle and high school. 

“Not every student in North Carolina has to go to a four-year institution to be a success in North Carolina,” Johnson said. “It’s an important message that we are getting to middle schoolers, to high schoolers, and they are hearing the message. We want to ask for North Carolina’s help in getting this message out.”

He said the Department of Public Instruction is disseminating fliers like the one below (on the left) to middle and high schoolers with information on careers one can aim for through receiving a high school diploma, joining the armed forces, going to a community college, or going to a four-year institution.

“We want every student to be able to, starting as early as middle school, learn what the different career pathways are here in North Carolina and be able to find the career path that best suits them and will allow them to have a successful, prosperous career,” Johnson said.

Hans echoed Johnson’s point and said there is high demand in industries with good-paying jobs in fields that do not require a four-year degree.

“I hear so much from employers, the business community across the state, about high demand fields: construction, transportation, public safety, information technology, health care, many great career opportunities,” Hans said. “Not just jobs, career opportunities… It is a recognition of the fact that one size does not fit all, that we can not standardize human beings onto one track in life. And when we try, it fails. And if it fails, it fails those students who are capable in so many ways, in ways that I could never be.”

Johnson said, as he started out his career as a high school teacher in Charlotte, he met many students who could have benefitted from knowing more options than the traditional four-year pathway emphasized by leaders.

“When I was teaching 10 years ago, everyone in the education leadership, in the education establishment, made it very clear in the minds of students that in order to be a success you had to pursue your four-year degree,” Johnson said. “That’s what students heard, ‘Go get your four-year degree if you want to be a success.’ I was teaching at West Charlotte High School, and I had students that were in the ninth grade, who were 16 and 17 years old, and they might not have even been reading on a fifth grade level, and we have a lot of work that we have to do as a K-12 system to confront that challenge, but part of that is letting students know that you can be a success with more than that track for a four-year institution.”

Johnson held up the career of power linemen as an example, an industry he said will need 800 new employees in each of the next five years to fill open jobs. Hans said 10 of the 58 community colleges have training programs to become linesmen that can make six figures later in their careers. Johnson said what the pathway looks like for careers like this can vary.

“They can require a high school diploma and a certification,” he said. “They can be a high school diploma and a degree from one of our community college systems. Or it’s military service that can start a great career and is one of the best job training courses ever in the history of humankind.”

Stephanie Nikolic, the culinary arts instructor Driscoll called “Chef,” used to own a baking food truck and learned about North Wake College and Career Academy after being an adjunct professor at Wake Tech Community College. She said she wants to make sure students not only learn about the food industry, but also about horticulture techniques and the importance of growing one’s own ingredients.

“They’re giving these kids such an amazing opportunity,” Nikolic said. “It’s not matchable, to be honest. It really isn’t.”

Career and technical education (CTE) teachers and school counselors play important roles in informing students of their options and helping students plan for their futures. Greeley Hibbard, a Lee County High School senior, said it was her advisor who told her about an engineering academy that first exposed her to the world of robotics. Hibbard is now a state officer with Skills USA, a program that offers training and competitions in skills-based trades. 

“My instructors pushed me to succeed but, more importantly, to find what I love to do and to run with it,” she said.

Johnson said he is excited about the February 20 launch of a report and action plan from myFutureNC, a cross-sector group of education, health, and business leaders who have been working to set a statewide post-secondary attainment goal. He said legislative items will be included to open career pathways and increase attainment.

“So right now, we’re showing that we are connected in the career pathways,” Johnson said. “We have them actually in the curriculum. We have schools like this. But the real work for the legislative agenda, is going to come with the myFutureNC plan, putting out that big statewide goal for where we need to be and showing that the leaders are all in alignment, and coming out with the shared priorities that will help us get to where we need to be.”

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.