Get Work-Based Learning. Get Experience.
October 2, 2018
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Heidi King

Iremember trying to write my first resume.  I breezed through my contact information, proudly noted my educational background, and then typed in bold letters EXPERIENCE.  I sat and pondered my time driving a golf cart peddling sandwiches and beverages and babysitting my coach’s children. I wasn’t too impressed with myself, so how could I expect potential employers to appreciate what I had to offer?  All too often, students exiting high school and college experience this dilemma: extensive education paired with marginal, practical work experience.

States and districts across the country are starting to address this issue.  They realize the need to better equip students to be career-ready. This awareness comes largely from industries declaring that high school students are not prepared for entry-level positions.  In Tennessee, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen included career-readiness as a major focus in her strategic plan, Tennessee Succeeds.  This state initiative paired with industry voice has urged one local Tennessee district to take career-readiness to the next level.  

In Hamilton County, students across the district’s 19 high schools can apply for the Gestamp Work-Based Learning Program.  This program is the first of its kind in the state. As a full immersion program, students attend school and work at the company’s facilities.  Gestamp is an automotive component manufacturer with three plants in the Chattanooga area. Tony Cates, HR Manager at Gestamp, states, “We needed to partner with the school system and start building our labor pool.  This program shows kids what it’s like to work in the real world and it creates an interest around advanced manufacturing – the robots, the automation, and the many pathways we have to offer here.” Gestamp opened up 15 of their full-time positions and put 30 students in those spots.  Students split eight-hour shifts working four paid hours in the plant and complete their educational requirements in the Learning Lab for three and half hours each day.

So how did this all get started?  This program began as a traditional work-based learning program.  Two or three students from Hixson High School began working at the facility six to eight hours a week.  Over the next two years, the company saw such potential in the students that they began giving them more responsibility and trusting them with more skilled assignments.  Excited by this success, visionary Tony Cates took a leap of faith and conversations began with the school district to make this a standalone program. It was easy to see this was a win-win for all stakeholders.  Students could learn soft and industry-specific skills and Gestamp could train students in a guided environment and broaden their labor pool. Gestamp provided the space for the Learning Lab and devoted a full-time floor supervisor to the students and Hamilton County provided a mobile cart of Chromebooks, midday transportation, and one full time teacher and, just like that, a program was born.  Of course, there were challenges.

According to Mandy Bohannon, Floor Supervisor for the WBL program, transportation has been the largest issue. “Because so many of the students don’t drive, it’s difficult for them to arrange a ride if their plan A fails.” The program encourages students to download Uber or Lyft to ensure backup transportation is available if needed. The district provides a midday bus to take the students back and forth from the other facilities and the Learning Lab during their shift change.  Recruiting the right students also presents a challenge, especially with a new program with no proven results or equity with the school counselors and staff. Teachers and counselors genuinely care about their students, and understandingly, they can be hesitant to send them off into unknown territory. District leaders were concerned about the online learning platform, so to offset potential hurdles, subject level teachers are made available to come in as needed to assist students if they need one-on-one support with a particular subject.  For many districts and industries, the biggest challenge will be the leap of faith needed to give this type of program a chance. To that, let me lead you through the benefits as the program heads into its second year.

The first cohort consisted of 30 student participants.  To date, Gestamp has hired 12 of those students on as full-time employees with numerous benefits, including health and tuition reimbursement.  Even students who chose another path after the program left with legitimate work experience. Students learn quickly that part of the program is being here everyday.  Students are held to the same attendance standard as Gestamp’s regular employees and face the same consequences if that standard is not met. Students have production goals and learn to be aware of those and to strive and meet them daily (they receive $.50 more an hour if they do). Students learn how to communicate with their supervisors and to properly address conflicts if they arise.  They learn time management and many say “going to bed earlier” is one of the first lessons they learn. Students are required to have a personal bank account and with that comes money management skills. Students are exposed to the many facets of a large company. They understand that it’s not just manufacturing that happens at a manufacturing plant, there are opportunities in human resources, accounting, engineering, purchasing and so much more. Students leave with a much broader perspective of business and what’s expected of them as future employees.  Lastly, they leave with lines and lines of information to write after the word EXPERIENCE on their resume.

The program has just recently been granted approval to offer a U.S. Department of Labor registered apprenticeship program.  Students who meet the 2000 hour work requirement and the 144 educational requirement will be granted this industry credential.  Hamilton County is working to spread this type program in more industry areas including Tourism and Hospitality, Healthcare, and Information Technology.  This approach will definitely fuel the progress of students graduating high school more career-ready than ever.


What is your district currently doing to increase career-readiness in students?

What challenges do you see with your district implementing programs similar to this one?

How do you define career-readiness? What can you do in your classroom to better prepare students for life in the workplace?

Heidi King now serves as the Gestamp Work-Based Learning Coordinator, though she was previously the second career Business and Personal Finance teacher at Hamilton County HS, where she was named 2016-17 Teacher of the Year. Prior to HCHS, she served as Dropout Prevention Coach on a three year school improvement grant in Walker County, GA. There she was an active member of the Leadership and Data Team and chaired the Attendance Action Committee. Heidi has been the Technology Lead and Webmaster at HCHS for five years and serves on the school’s Leadership Team. Heidi received her Bachelor of Business degree from Kennesaw State University in Marketing, her Master of Education degree from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in Secondary Education, and her Education Specialist degree from Valdosta State University in Performance-Based Leadership. She also serves as a Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellow, engaging her colleagues in providing classroom feedback to the Tennessee Department of Education on public education policy issues.

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