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Bastrop EDC Plays Key Role in Connecting Local Graduates to In-Demand Career Opportunities

Judy Levene - Contributing Writer

September 25-30 has been designated Careers in Texas Industries Week by the Texas Workforce Commission and the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. In this spirit, the Bastrop Economic Development Corporation spotlights how its strategic partnerships help middle and high school students explore career opportunities and prepare to compete in a fast-changing 21st century economy.

Bastrop EDC Plays Key Role in Connecting Local Graduates to In-Demand Career Opportunities

It’s no great surprise that the Bastrop Economic Development Corporation extends its reach far and wide to attract new jobs and taxpaying businesses to Bastrop. What may be less well known is its active role in strengthening the local workforce from within. Specifically, the Bastrop EDC is behind multiple collaborative initiatives to ensure that students graduate with the skills needed to embark on fulfilling, well-paying careers while addressing the workforce requirements of area employers. These stretch from fostering well-connected high school juniors and seniors to helping middle school students pave their way to the world of work – while having fun.

Youth Career Day for high school juniors and seniors

Bastrop Youth Career Day, a now-annual event that debuted in 2015, is the most visible illustration of community collaboration to ready high school graduates for career success. It also aims to satisfy Texas education mandates and community needs for workforce-ready graduates. This multifaceted career fair for Bastrop ISD juniors and seniors is hosted and sponsored by the Bastrop EDC, Workforce Solutions Rural Capital Area, the City of Bastrop, the Bastrop Chamber of Commerce and Bastrop ISD. It consists of live and video presentations by business professionals combined with a career fair deliberately aligned with state-defined career pathways. Exhibitors include area private- and public-sector employers, post-secondary educational institutions, and recruiters from the armed forces.

The event’s concept and execution underscore that the transition from high school is not one-size-fits-all. It helps students see real-world applications of what they are learning in school and potential career opportunities in the area regardless of their plans post-graduation. Further, Youth Career Day affords them one-to-one interactions with businesses and organizations not otherwise available. Following the formal programs, students visit the booths of exhibitors and learn about future full- and part-time positions and careers. Some participating employers take applications for current or summer job openings, while others scout future employees and introduce students to their organizations and offerings. Through these interactions, students also explore the difference between a job and a career.

Career planning begins in middle school

This model program, which has already won statewide and international economic development awards, continues to build on its proven structure. Further, for the last two years, Youth Career Day presentations have been live-streamed into Bastrop’s middle school Career Portals classes. In these classes, middle school students learn about the academic clusters and extracurricular activities corresponding to each of the career pathways in high school. Prior to enrolling at Bastrop High School or Cedar Creek High School, they will have to declare a career pathway, based on their aptitudes and interests. This takes place on Career Portals Day, slated for Spring 2018.

In advance of this event, the Bastrop EDC is partnering with the school district, Workforce Solutions and local industry on a new program, similar to Youth Career Day, designed to help eighth-grade students figure out their focus heading into high school.

“On Career Portals Day, area employers will be on-hand to talk with middle school students about how their studies and activities can transfer to a job in a particular pathway,” said Jean Riemenschneider, who leads the Bastrop EDC’s Education and Workforce program. “These working professionals can tell students, ‘Even if they’re not so fun now, here’s how you’ll use your Geometry or Algebra or English class on the job.’”

Students will also augment what they have learned in class by visiting with representatives of the various extracurricular clubs, programs and opportunities that fit within their intended career pathway. This will help students get more familiar with programs they can add to their schedule, such as Spanish Club, band, or robotics classes.

What’s more, learning about the variety of employers and positions available in the community will filter out to the students’ parents, exposing them to more career opportunities as well – perhaps a company they weren’t aware of, or jobs available locally that they didn’t know existed.

Promoting internship and mentorship opportunities

As a community connector, the Bastrop EDC regularly partners with the school district and workforce commission to support future graduates’ workforce readiness for the needs of area employers and industries. When meeting with companies to discuss business expansion or retention, the EDC includes internship and mentoring opportunities in the conversation. Along with the school district, it has improved tracking of such opportunities within the Bastrop ISD geographic area.   

Internship examples span industries and employers. For example, the City of Bastrop’s Information Technology department created an internship program two years ago and has been able to expand that position into a part-time paid position. For students pursuing the Health Science Pathway, the two campuses of the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Research Center offer internships for high school juniors and seniors over the summer and during the academic year through its Science Park High School Research Program. The selected interns have the opportunity to participate in cutting-edge scientific research under the direction of faculty mentors. Lone Star Circle of Care of Bastrop County also offers internships for Health Science students. At this community health center, which provides a wide array of primary and behavioral health care services, student interns perform such tasks as drawing blood, taking vital signs, etc. 

These opportunities are primarily located within the bounds of Bastrop ISD, although some extend across the county. Internships are offered during the summer as well as during the school year.

“So many people and organizations within the community have the capacity to contribute,” Riemenschneider said. “We have banks that have been offering internships for years, equipping students to develop valuable, high-level skills, such as customer service. They gain the ability to work under pressure and to perform very specific tasks within that learning environment.”

Extracurricular activities and volunteer coaches open new career doors

Currently in development, a formal student mentorship program is being structured to offer optimal value for students and a positive impact on participating employers and community members. It is intended to expose students to the tools, language and expectations of the workplace, while having someone to call and talk with about work-related matters.

The Bastrop High School robotics program, now in its sixth year, clearly demonstrates how engaging extracurricular activities can profoundly influence a student’s career trajectory. This STEM-focused afterschool program is part of the FIRST® Robotics Competition, and couples the excitement of sport with the rigors of science and technology. In just 66 days, teams of students have to design, build and program industrial-size robots from the ground up to play a difficult field game against equally intense competitors.

The skills involved range from computer-aided design and welding components to creating a business plan and brand. In April, the Bastrop High School robotics team competed for the second time in the FIRST World Championship under the guidance of coach and mentor Ryan Gibson. Gibson volunteers his time after school and at competitions in addition to teaching robotics, engineering and physics classes. Additional community volunteers include software developers, engineers and owners of companies that manufacture technology components.

“Without the robotics program and the many hours of mentoring, many of our students would have zero exposure to any type of hands-on engineering opportunities,” said Riemenschneider. “I have watched kiddos walk in on Day One thinking they’re going to college for one course of study, and by the time they graduate high school, they’re focused on pursuing some area of engineering.”

One of the most successful examples of mentorship is the high school automotive program. Its large base of community volunteers ranges from owners of auto dealerships to retired members of the military who bring a background in automotive technologies. Many of these individuals have dedicated a tremendous amount of time working with the students as mentors, as well as helping to launch the high school ASE certification program. This year, students completing the automotive program will graduate with three of the eight available certifications already under their tool belts. Considering that 60 dealerships are located within a 30-mile radius of Bastrop, this program has been highly advantageous for students and area employers alike.

Aligning workforce needs and student skill sets

The Bastrop EDC coordinates closely with the workforce commission to identify and solve gaps in skills with their industry partners. If there is an unmet need, such as a dearth of welders and other hard-metal workers, they bring together multiple employers to define the types of employees or skills in short supply. Together, the EDC and workforce commission develop a six-week training program, for example, to develop more workers with those in-demand skills. For students seeking a well-paying job once they graduate, this also creates opportunities.

“We see the true value of these career-focused programs in how they open the eyes of our students to opportunities they didn’t realize were here in the community – or in their life. It’s so gratifying to watch these kids really get excited about connecting the dots: recognizing that ‘if I do X, it opens the door to Y,’” Riemenschneider summarized. “And, when our industry people come in and physically interact with our students, they get to discover how intelligent, articulate and prepared so many of our students really are.”

If you or your organization can offer internships or career mentoring for Bastrop students, or input on in-demand skillsets, please contact Jean Riemenschneider: Jean@BastropEDC.org.