Work-based Learning in Opelika

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By Hannah Lester
hlester@opelikaobserver.com

The Opelika Chamber’s Business Over Breakfast meeting last week encouraged all employers to consider work-based learning programs for local students.

Business Over Breakfast: Filling The Hiring Gap hosted three guest speakers from three local programs, Amy Hanna, career coach with Auburn and Opelika City Schools, Tyler Laye, director of academic programs at Southern Union State Community College, and Jaci Lee, coordinator of vocational services for the Achievement Center – Easter Seals.

“It’s become a problem over the last 10 years or so, the workforce just simply doesn’t have enough people to fill jobs that we need,” said President and CEO of the Opelika Chamber, Ali Rauch.

All three of the speakers shared information from organizations offering similar opportunities for employers. Hanna spoke on work-based learning for high school students, Laye provided information on college students in the workforce and Lee spoke about the Achievement Center’s goals for work-based learning for adults with special needs.

Auburn and Opelika Students:

The state breaks work-based learning into different outlets, Hanna said, which include career awareness activities (job shadowing, career expo, career affairs, industry tours), career exploration activities (employability skill training, simulating workplace, internships, externships, cooperative education) and career preparation (plentiful practicum experiences, internships, on-the-job learning, pre-apprenticeship programs or registered apprenticeship programs).

“The one that I think is most important to you is cooperative education,” Hanna said. “That is the direct path to high school students if they are a fit for your business.”

In this experience, students can earn a minimum of 140 hours in the workplace.

“So, what we have to do then is we have to vet them on the inside first,” she said. “And so, our priority always, first and foremost is to make sure that a student is on track to graduate. So they have to be at least 16 years old, they have to be a junior or senior, they cannot have any attendance, grade or discipline issues on our end and they have to complete an application and an interview. They need to be physically and mentally capable of performing your work and they have to have their own transportation.”

There are responsibilities for employees too, Hannah said, such as a job description, job training, mentoring and compensation.

“Please keep in mind that in the Opelika City Schools there is a 60-65% free and reduced lunch rate and so the training, the mentoring, the compensation that you can provide could be a life-altering situation for some of our students,” she said.

“The idea is that what students are learning in the classroom can then be applied at your place of business and those skills that they have hopefully will make them a better employee for you and make it a more enriching experience for the student,” Hanna said.

Southern Union Students:

Southern Union has work-based learning offered for the health science division and technical division but hopes to expand, Laye said.

“We want all of our students to learn while they earn, to grow their resume, to grow their skills, to make connections,” she said. “And as a first step to bringing that vision to reality, Southern Union is expanding their work-based learning opportunities to include several academic programs.”

Laye discussed the many benefits that exist for employers should they choose to participate, from giving back to the community, strengthening the local workforce and even helping grow current employees in leadership roles.

Students at Southern Union have to meet a set of requirements for internships including having a certain GPA, being in degree-seeking fields, have a certain number of credits or courses and have submitted the application with instructor recommendations.

“The internship applicants are vetted,” Laye said. “We want to send you people who are going to meet your needs, people that are going to help you increase productivity.”

Achievement Center – Easter Seals

The Achievement Center is “a non-profit for vocational rehab,” Lee said, which serves to help those with disabilities find work.

One of the first services the center provides is job readiness evaluation to see if candidates could fit in with full-time work.

Lee referred to the businesses that utilize achievement center candidates as Community Based Training Sites, or businesses in the community.

The evaluation takes three weeks with businesses from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. each day.

“Now, there are instances where it can be shortened if we see very soon that it’s not going to work out, they’re not really ready, that can be shortened,” Lee said.

The second service the Achievement Center provides is job development, which is for candidates ready for full-time work.

Candidates can try out a few different local businesses, see what works for them and find a good fit over periods as short as one week or as long as three.

“The goal is, for this program, is for permanent employment,” Lee said. “… The goal is for you to hire them on.”

The third service the center provides is the Job Exploration Training Summer Program, which allows juniors and seniors in high school to spend their summers in work-based learning.

“They’re kind of getting that hands-on work experience before they enter the workforce after graduation,” Lee said.

For more information on the Achievement Center, visit: www.easterseals.com/alabama/connect-locally/service-center-locations/alabama-achievement-center-opelika.html.

For more information on hiring through Auburn City Schools or Opelika City Schools, email Hanna at ajhanna@auburnschools.org.

For more information on Southern Union work-based learning, email careerservices@suscc.edu.

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