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Teachers delve into industry during summer break

Fifteen years ago, Mark Meno said, Craven County high schoolers were leaving eastern North Carolina after graduation. At his workplace, employees were not often from the area. 

But Meno has seen a shift in recent years. The Navy Fleet Readiness Center, where Meno is a research and engineering group head, noticed a gap in its local pipeline and started reaching out to students — hosting summer camps and visiting classrooms. This year, Meno said there are employees starting with the company who first heard about local career opportunities in middle school, at one of those summer camps. Next step: connect with teachers.

“We’re just starting to reap the benefits of that,” Meno said. “Now we’re getting teachers comfortable with the idea of inserting some of that opportunity into their curriculum in their classroom without us having to come in and bring it in.”

The relationship between industry and the classroom doesn’t stop with students, Meno said. The Teachers@Work program, an initiative from the North Carolina Business Committee for Education (NCBCE), is sending groups of teachers to companies near their schools to gain experience in work environments like Meno’s. 

Governor Roy Cooper said the program furthers his education goals for students and teachers.

“Teachers@Work is a meaningful professional development program for North Carolina teachers,” Cooper said in a statement. “It aligns with my commitment to making North Carolina a Top 10 Most Educated State by 2025 and to ensuring that all students have effective teachers.”

The initiative is aiming to form relationships between schools and businesses and, in turn, help close the “skills gap” that state and national education leaders often refer to. 

“As the Governor has said, we count on educators to help develop young people into thoughtful, productive adults who can pursue abundant, purposeful lives,” said NCBCE deputy director Ashlie Bucy. “To accomplish this, it is imperative that we build connections between education and industry and provide teachers with opportunities to better understand workforce skills that can be integrated into their classroom environments.”

Teachers spend a full week in their externships and spend entire workdays gaining knowledge they wouldn’t otherwise have. The week, which could include anything from hands-on engineering work to learning about organizational structures, looks different depending on the company.

Jeanene McBride, a career coach at Pitt Community College, said her time with Hyster Yale evolved as employees asked McBride and the other two educators with her each day what they thought so far and what they wanted to get out of their experiences. 

McBride said they went on a tour of the plant, spoke with entry-level employees, watched technological training, learned about manufacturing and engineering processes, and saw how products go from inception to development.

“I’ve never had an experience like this before,” McBride said. “I’ve never had the opportunity to spend an entire week from eight to five in a company and to learn the inner-workings of that company.” 

Teachers are expected to create a lesson plan informed by their externships. McBride said she’s not yet sure of the specifics of hers, but wants to talk about a new concept she learned: flexing.

McBride said Hyster Yale uses flexing to allow employees to work within departments and roles different than what they were hired for. They first have to earn a certificate for that role. Those who “flex,” she said, are often first considered for leadership roles when they pop up.

McBride said she wants to translate this approach to the high schoolers she counsels — either to encourage freshmen to take challenging courses or to give juniors and seniors career advice.

“It’s so important that students understand that they have to be life-long learners, that there’s not going to be a time when you can just say, ‘OK, I’ve got this so I’m done,'” she said.

McBride, who lives in Kinston but works in Winterville, wants to see the same kind of shift Meno mentioned. She said students are often unaware of the opportunities in their backyards to stay local, make good money, and have a meaningful career.

“They don’t see that connection, so it’s up to us as educators to encourage them to explore all of their options,” she said.

The Teachers@Work program helped McBride become more in-tune with what’s locally available for students and what’s required by employees. 

“You actually have the ability to see what soft skills you can help your students to improve, and what subjects you can drive them towards academically so they can be better suited for a career right here in their hometown.”

McBride said the stigma around post-secondary opportunities other than four-year universities persists. 

“We’re finding that even if a student shows some interest in the community college, a lot of times it’s convincing the parent that this is a great opportunity for them,” she said. 

McBride said her externship is going to come in handy in future conversations with parents.

“Had I not experienced Hyster Yale, I would not know what opportunities were available there,” she said. “Now, when I host my parent meetings, when I do my individual student sessions, I can say, ‘You know, I know an engineer at Hyster Yale, and I know there’s plenty of room for advancement over there.”

Meno said he’s seen some interesting projects come out of Teachers@Work externships. A middle school engineering teacher had students create rocket designs using computer software that were then made at the center’s fabrication lab. A sixth-grade teacher noticed troubles with communication between top-level engineers and blue-collar employees and developed a project that divided the class up and taught students how to work together and provide basic, clear instructions.

Meno said he hopes classroom-industry ties will not only build a strong pipeline for his business, but change how success in education is measured.

“Historically, the education system has been interested in educating the kids, but often times the output is graduation rate, not employment,” he said. “If I’m interested, as a K-12 system, in employment numbers of my graduates, that’s a different model than the typical K-12 graduation rate model, which is, ‘I got them out the door, I’m sure they’ll find a job.'”

Meno said community colleges, certificate programs, and bringing industry to teachers and students are all part of fixing that mindset.

“Those are all starting to shape the K-12 system.”

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.