Back to class

When John P. McConnell started discussing the internship aspect of Career Academies for Columbus-area students, he made one thing clear: The students must be paid.

One reason for his demand, he says, is he wanted business owners to be able to fire the students if their work was unacceptable — and let them see they’ll continue to be paid if they perform well.

The important real-life work place lessons are one way organizers hope to fuel student and business interest in the academies, which are formed through a partnership among Columbus Public Schools, Columbus State Community College and Central Ohio businesses.

“Keep asking yourself, are you happy with secondary education? This is a concrete way to do something about it,” says McConnell, chairman and CEO of Worthington Industries Inc. and chair of the Workforce Development Council of the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce, which sponsors the Career Academies.

The academies are small learning communities within high schools.

Students in grades 10 through 12 take college prep level classes but also have exposure to the work world through classroom speakers as well as internships, job shadowing and mentoring from local businesses. Students must maintain a B average on their own or with the help of tutoring and, upon successful completion of the academies, could receive an honors diploma, industry certification and up to one year’s worth of college credits.

Teachers and students volunteer for the program, which adds a curriculum based on business-driven skill sets.

“We will have an agreed-upon set of skill standards that businesses have signed off on,” says Tim Hickey, president and CEO of Techneglas Inc. and vice chair of the Workforce Development Council.

He anticipates that graduates of the career academies will give him a better pool of talent to access for entry level positions.

“In response to our needs, we have had to do a lot of training and development right in house. I’m hoping with the Career Academies we won’t have to do the same degree of remediation, and the people will have the skills they understand will be necessary in the future,” Hickey says.

One key to the program’s success, says Rod Bowman, senior vice president of workforce development at the chamber, is that students participate in study areas of interest to them. The academies, launched in two Columbus Public schools last year, had 500 students enrolled. More Central Ohio schools and industries will be added over the next two years, with 11 academies hosting 2,400 students expected by the 2002-2003 school year.

Academies include architecture, construction and engineering; business; health sciences; information technology; information technology/logistics; and technology, engineering and manufacturing.

Business participation is another key factor.

Worthington Industries, for example, will provide internships for six students this summer at $8 an hour, McConnell says. Both Worthington and Techneglas have hosted teacher externships, another part of the academies, during which teachers visit companies for three days to learn more about the skills required of workers.

“I think they were shocked at what goes on in a manufacturing environment, what skills are necessary, and I think they realized perhaps what they were teaching is not what is needed in the future,” Hickey says.

Local workforce development efforts were prompted, McConnell says, by a shrinking population and workers who do not have good skills.

Consider the following facts that Bowman points out:

* Columbus Public Schools, the area’s largest workforce supplier, has about 4,900 students in each grade level, but only about 2,800 graduate each year.

“That means there are 2,000 students out there on the streets or employed by you who don’t have the skills to do the jobs that you have,” Bowman told employers attending information sessions on the academies.

* The Ohio Business Roundtable, Bowman says, conducted a study that showed only one in 14 Ohio high school graduates has the skills necessary for entry level work.

* 71 percent of Columbus State freshmen need remedial classes.

* 106,000 Central Ohio adults can’t read well enough to do an adequate job in the workplace.

Businesses participating in the academies pledge that they’ll consider academy graduates for openings they may have. McConnell expects the academies to be a good resource for the 15 to 20 entry level positions he fills every year.

“You have the opportunity, like in any internship program, to get a good look at a number of students,” McConnell says. “It’s a wonderful way to develop your workforce as opposed to cold hiring.” How to reach: John P. McConnell, Worthington Industries, 438-3210; Tim Hickey, Techneglas Inc., 443-6551; Rod Bowman, Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce, 225-6901; the Chamber’s Workforce Development Department, 225-6900, [email protected] or

Joan Slattery Wall ([email protected]) is associate editor of SBN Magazine in Columbus.