State officials want to place a bigger emphasis on exposing young students to career opportunities, but schools in Williamson County have already made that a focus.
Last week, The Tennessee Department of Education unveiled a new strategic plan that, among other things, hopes to provide career exploration to every middle school student.
Two days after that announcement, Williamson County Schools and Franklin Special School District hosted a career fair for eighth graders at the Williamson County Ag Expo Center. The districts organized the first iteration of the career fair nearly two decades ago.
The event, called Career Quest, aims to give students a taste of the kinds of careers available in Williamson County and information about the road leading to those careers.
Hundreds of students wandered through the expo center, talking to representatives from more than 50 companies about what it’s like to work in their industries.
Half the students looked entirely uncomfortable in oversized button-down shirts and khaki pants. Others looked at home in T-shirts and sweat pants. A few brave souls wore suits and ties. Without exception, they moved through the expo center in packs.
The employers, desperate to attract the attention of eight graders, broke out their flashiest toys. Nissan displayed souped up sports cars, a robotic arm and an infrared camera.
The Williamson County Sheriff’s Office brought a massive, military style SWAT vehicle, presumably to demonstrate some typical workaday law enforcement equipment. The Tennessee Titans had one of the longest lines in the center.
The students were required to talk to several employers and record answers to their questions on a worksheet.
A group of Grassland Middle School students said they visited the Titans booth because it was easy.
“They were giving out free stuff,” one student said.
Grassland student Andrew Hubbard and Spring Station student Benton King said they were more interested in starting their own business than working for somebody else. They already have plans to start a company that builds boats for fishing and surfing.
“We’re going to start out building in our garage I guess,” Hubbard said.
At the booth for Layton Construction, project assistant Kelli Jodway said her company set up a booth to get students interested in engineering and construction.
The company participates in a student organization called ACE Mentors, which stands for Architecture, Contracting and Engineering, that is designed to encourage students to pursue careers in engineering.
“It's just a program that gets the kids excited about the construction industry in general, so architecture, construction, working on the contractor's side and engineering,” she said. “A lot of these kids don't know all the things they can do in the construction industry.”
Fairview Middle School Students Sam Frank and Jacob Carter asked Jodway why she chose her job and what they should study to get into the field. Both students are already participating in Fairview’s mechatronics program, which teaches students the basics of electronics, hydraulics, pneumatics and robotics..
Frank said he wants to study chemical engineering to combine his interest in science and engineering, but he doesn’t get too stressed about planning the next several decades of his life.
“I kind of have the mentality that whatever happens, happens,” he said. “I want to try to have a plan, but if something doesn't go my way there's always next time.”
At a Microsoft booth, Hillsboro Middle School student Avery Sledesky had questions about work life balance.
She said she would be interested in working in technology or finance, but she wanted a lower pressure job. She asked a Microsoft engineer how he spent his time outside of work.
“(I want) a job that isn't too stressful, a balance of workload and regular life,” she said.
Williamson County School’s focus on exposing students to career options looks like a template for what the education department would like to do in other parts of the state.
The district’s College, Career and Technical Education department has been organizing career exploration events for decades. That department also organized two events last month that brought students to the offices of local companies.
The education department hopes to provide district access to at least one career education tool. That career exploration could start as early as pre-K. The state also hopes to provide professional development on coaching and counseling students based on career interest and capacity.