Not everyone will go to college, and that’s not a bad thing.

Educators in the Ferndale School District want students to know about the varied career pathways available to them, from the trades to healthcare to law enforcement, which may or may not require a four-year degree.

No matter the career students find themselves in, it will require preparation and skills to successfully navigate the work world. That’s where Ferndale Futures comes in.

Members of Whatcom County Fire District 7, Washington State Fish & Wildlife, Customs and Border Protection and Whatcom County Dispatch attend the October Lunch With Leaders program at the Ferndale Chamber of Commerce. Photo courtesy: Ferndale School District

Ferndale Futures is a partnership between the school district and the Ferndale Chamber of Commerce to enhance workforce development efforts.

Anya Milton, executive director of the Ferndale Chamber, hears from her members the challenges of finding qualified workers. And she’s aware of the national trend, the “silver tsunami,” of older workers retiring and leaving gaps in expertise when they do.

Think of the last time you needed to hire a plumber or electrician: chances are you had to wait longer than you wanted to get a repair made because their services are in such high demand. Those trends will continue unless a skilled workforce can be cultivated.

“The goal is to get students to consider different pathways to careers, not only on a traditional four-year college path,” Milton says.

Students get straight talk about career paths they are interested in at Lunch With Leaders. Photo courtesy: Ferndale School District

“We are committed to doing more career-focused learning in the school district,” Ferndale Superintendent Linda Quinn adds, “and the Chamber is committed to helping us do that.”

Quinn says the school district recently distilled its mission into three focal points: Character Strong, Civic Minded and Career Ready. The partnership with the Ferndale Chamber is an important step in students becoming “career ready.”

“Over the last few years we have developed a stronger and stronger relationship with our Chamber of Commerce,” Quinn says. “We were looking to turn our good working relationship with the business community into something bigger.”

To accomplish this goal they looked at what other districts in the state were doing to connect students to careers. They knew they wanted to get kids and business leaders in the same space, and Lunch with Leaders, the first program under the Ferndale Futures umbrella, does just that.

Students and community members connect at a Lunch With Leaders program at the Ferndale Chamber of Commerce earlier this year. Photo courtesy: Ferndale School District

Each luncheon features a different career pathway, such as manufacturing or healthcare. The interested students attend a luncheon at Pioneer Pavilion where they get to meet presenters from local businesses, organizations or government entities.

The presenters talk about how they came to be in their career and share some of the important steps it took to get there. Employers also address essential skills such as punctuality, sticking with a problem and getting along with others who might not have the same views on an issue.

Before the luncheon, students also have the opportunity to attend a presentation by the Chamber on those soft skills that are equally important no matter what kind of job students eventually find themselves in. This might include practicing a firm handshake and making eye contact.

Business leaders who took place in an earlier Lunch With Leaders program, last spring, at the Ferndale Chamber of Commerce. Photo courtesy: Ferndale School District

“The path to success is being keen to these soft skills,” says Milton.

Similar to networking lunches at the Chamber, the students spend 10 minutes at one table, and then rotate to the next one, so they get an opportunity to hear from each of the presenters.

After the luncheon, leaders follow up. Each student will get some kind of contact from an employer they visited with at the luncheon, with an opportunity for a job shadow, tour or similar chance to experience the workplace.

So far, Lunch with Leaders has focused on the trades with Les Schwab, Gary’s Plumbing, Gitts Autobody and Lynden Door; manufacturing with Timkin, Samson Rope, Phillips 66 and Healthy Pet; and first responders with Whatcom County Fire District 7, Washington State Fish & Wildlife, Customs and Border Protection and Whatcom County Dispatch.

One goal of the Lunch With Leaders program is to get local employers to offer job shadows, apprenticeships and internships. Photo courtesy: Ferndale School District

The program, which started in the 2018-2019 school year, has already netted positive results for two students who received job offers, says Edwin Elefson, director of career and technical education at Ferndale High School.

“Some of the kids just need a jump start,” he says, and Lunch with Leaders is giving students the opportunity by getting them connected directly with local business leaders. The Chamber is connecting the businesses with the school, which Elefson says might not happen otherwise.

“Partnering with [the Ferndale Chamber] has been a huge asset,” he says.

Ferndale Futures is a partnership between the school district and the Ferndale Chamber of Commerce to enhance workforce development efforts. Photo courtesy: Ferndale School District

With the bond passage for the new high school, Elefson predicts more businesses will look to become involved to help shape the career center planned for the new school.

An advisory committee of educators and business leaders is already meeting two to three times a year to further discuss how businesses and the schools can better prepare all students for becoming members of the workforce.

Milton says her goal for 2020 is to make Ferndale Futures more robust, building out additional programs to assist students.

No matter how the program evolves, it will need businesses to step up and invest in the future, Milton says.

One goal is to get local employers to offer job shadows, apprenticeships and internships. This can present a challenge in some manufacturing settings where workplace rules may not allow a minor on the shop floor. But Milton points to a successful program between Spokane schools and the power company Avista. She hopes to use their model to bring a similar program here.

“All of us at the table want to move the program forward.”

Businesses that would like to get involved with Lunch with Leaders can contact Anya Milton at the Ferndale Chamber of Commerce, anya@ferndale-chamber.com.

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