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Employers Connect With Middle Schoolers

By Johanna F. Still, posted Feb 3, 2023
New Hanover County Schools middle school students participate in a city block building activity with Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo as part of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce's Career and Leadership Development Academy programming. (Photo C/O NHC)
This spring, students are set to complete a career readiness program that caters to middle schoolers – the first of its kind in New Hanover County. 

Developed by the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, the Career and Leadership Development Academy will graduate 42 students in its inaugural class. Next year, the plan is to double that number. 

The pilot program selected five students from each of New Hanover County Schools’ eight middle schools to participate. 

It entails eight, full-day excursions hosted by employers in the community, designed to expose students to a range of career options available in Wilmington. The 10-month program is funded by corporate partners, notably a $60,000 grant from the Truist Foundation. 

Industry participants include top employers representing a mix of the region’s strong suits, including Corning, Live Oak Bank, Vantaca, Thermo Fisher Scientific, LS3P, Clancy & Theys, Monteith Construction Corp., GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy and others. 

“They have really tailored it to their audience,” NHCS chief academic officer Patrice Faison said of the participating companies’ programming. “It is really for kids. And I commend the businesses for that.”

Chamber and school officials moved swiftly to launch the program in 60 days. In April, the county received its first economic development strategy in eight years, the Economic Mobility report. One of the recommendations in that analysis, prepared by Greenfield Development, was to continue to enhance early connections between students and career paths. 

Chamber president and CEO Natalie English approached the school system’s superintendent shortly after with the goal of creating a hands-on career education program targeted at middle schoolers. 

“They are two women on a mission,” Faison said of English and Laura Brogdon-Primavera, the chamber’s director of programs and initiatives. “We jumped right on board … It was a no-brainer.”

English said educating students on in-demand career opportunities and the pathways available to them has been one of the most significant challenges that community leaders face.

“Many experts consider waiting until high school to educate young people about career pathways too late,” English said. 

Seventh grade is considered the sweet spot to capture students’ attention – in time to begin crafting the eighth-grade course load to prepare for a high school path that might include career technical education (CTE) courses.  

Highlights from the program’s field trips so far include a hospitality day at the Blockade Runner Beach Resort, where students learned about housekeeping, guest services, culinary, maintenance and entrepreneurial career paths. In another outing, students built city blocks in an interactive activity and learned about real estate, architectural, engineering and construction opportunities. 

“We’re not just educating students; we’re educating parents – and I’ll say educators – about some of the opportunities that are around us that we do not know of,” Faison said. “There’s so many times when we just push our kids in a certain pathway because it’s all we know. Everybody wants to be a teacher, doctor, lawyer … But there’s so many opportunities right here in Wilmington and in jobs that we don’t know of.”

Students have been excited about participating in the program, Faison said. “They love the fact that it’s never the same thing.” 

After attending warehouse and logistics day, students blogged about seeing a crane at the Port of Wilmington that was used in the filming of Iron Man 3, and how MegaCorp Logistics helped coordinate the shipment of the stage for the 2020 Super Bowl. “It was AWESOME!” the Roland Grise Middle School team wrote in its blog post.

Faison said within a few years, NHCS might begin to see dividends in the form of graduates aligning their coursework to mirror existing CTE paths available to them. 

“I just wish every student can have this opportunity,” she said. “You cannot separate economic development and growth from education.”

English said the chamber is seeking funding support to make the program available to every student in the region. 

The program is at least the second action the chamber has spearheaded as a result of recommendations included in the Economic Mobility report. Another, which launched in early January, involves initiating a comprehensive new branding strategy for the region. English credits the chamber’s board of directors, which supports the staff in its efforts to quickly respond to the community’s needs. As a private nonprofit, “the chamber can be creative and nimble in taking action,” English said.
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