Program, website help students choose their paths early

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Frank Schultz
April 6, 2014

JANESVILLE—Teen-agers aren't known for looking very far into the future.

Businesses must plan for the future.

A new effort to bring these two groups together—for mutual benefit—is getting high marks in Rock County.

All of the county's public school districts and more than 70 companies are already linked through a website, with the goal of making students more ready for the workforce.

The program is called Inspire Rock County. It was launched last year and is funded by the Rock County 5.0 economic development group and the Southwest Wisconsin Workforce Development Board.

It features interactive software that reportedly has captured the interest of middle- schoolers, to the delight of economic development officials.

“I feel this software is creating real insights for our students so they will really plan for their futures,” said Alissa Monk, a guidance counselor at Janesville's Edison Middle School.

The program has helped this year's eighth-graders as they decide what high school courses to take next fall, said Steve Huth, vocational education coordinator for the Janesville School District.

Instead of guessing, those students can use the software to decide what high school and college courses they will need to reach their career goals.

The software also steers students to consider jobs here at home and to establish relationships with local companies years before they are ready for their first day on the job.

“It gives these companies first shot at our best kids,” Huth said.

Businesses benefit because they get more access to potential workers tied to the area by family and interests, as opposed to trying to lure workers who might not want to live in a four-season climate, said James Otterstein, economic development manager for Rock County.

A 2012 survey of local high school students found that the primary reason they left the area was they thought local employment options were lacking, Otterstein said. Inspire Rock County is designed to put that notion to rest.

Local companies also are interested in avoiding skill-set mismatches and unrealistic expectations from job candidates, Otterstein said, and they want to be ready to fill positions as baby boomers retire.

The program unites information about local companies with a purchased software/information website called Career Cruising. Janesville public schools began working with it last fall.

Other districts have introduced it to their high schools first. Janesville will do that next fall.

All Janesville middle school students are signed up and have begun exploring careers. The program not only shows them career possibilities, but it tells them what Janesville courses they would have to take to reach their goals, Huth said.

A group of middle school counselors interviewed at the end of their workdays appeared enthused about the new tools.

Their excitement stemmed from the fact that students have embraced the tool, exploring careers on their own and even showing the website to their parents at home, they said.

That leads to conversations about post-high school education and possible colleges to attend, said Julie Konstanz, a counselor at Franklin Middle School.

If a family wants to look at colleges in a particular region of the country—perhaps because of family in the area—the website provides searches of schools in those regions.

“We really couldn't do that with WISCareers,” Huth said of the previous program the schools used. “We'd only heard about Wisconsin colleges and universities.”

Another feature is the ability to track how the program is used. That's how leaders know that the top career interests expressed by students countywide are the arts, audio/visual, technology and communications, health sciences, architecture/construction, human services, and agriculture/food/natural resources.

The Career Cruising website provides links to just about any career one could think of. For each career, it answers the first question students often ask: How much could I earn?

Beyond ranges for earnings is a wealth of knowledge.

The entry for nursing includes photos of nurses doing various tasks, videos on the life of a nurse, lists of skills and attributes of nurses, a description of the workplace, a list of local health care providers, an opportunity to chat online with a local nurse, Q&As with two nurses about their jobs and a job-search function that shows job postings from multiple websites.

The site also helps arrange tours of local medical facilities, invite guest speakers or arrange job-shadowing sessions. 

Visitors can click on a list of related careers, where the same features are provided at the click of mouse.

Students are able to build their own four-year plans for courses that will put them on track toward their chosen careers, and they can switch career preferences easily, Huth said.

Students also can keep an online portfolio that tracks their achievements, test scores, best schoolwork examples and goals.

The site also has a resume builder that makes it easy to update as students gain skills and experience, Monk said.

“The whole thing, it's unbelievable,” Huth said.

Perhaps the best feature is the ability to contact local people who are working in the careers the students finds interesting.

Students can post questions, and the local workers write back, all in a Facebook-like environment that teachers and other students can all read.

The adults are all background-checked, and real names are not used, so it's anonymous and safe, Huth said.

The program allows students to explore any career, even if it is not offered locally.

Ballerina? It's covered. Rock star? Type in “musician” to learn about that career path.

“We don't have to quash the dreams for a kid who wanted to be a pro athlete,” Konstanz said.

If a student wants to be a doctor, he or she learns about the long, hard road involved and offers alternatives in the medical field.

“It's not us saying, 'Do you really have what it takes?' (The website) helps them think bigger and broader about careers,” Konstanz said.

As of February, 79 career coaches from local businesses had signed up, and more than 13,000 students had started building portfolios.

More than 1,600 students had designated career goals.

While students seem interested in exploring careers, they were further inspired by the chance to get Best Buy gift cards for using the system, the Janesville counselors said.

“The kids are very excited about that,” Monk said.

Rock is the second Wisconsin county to adopt the program. Racine County was first, Sheboygan third, and now Dane County, as well as Boone and Winnebago counties just to the south in Illinois, are considering following suit, Otterstein said.

Participating local companies include manufacturing, architecture, finance, higher education, nonprofits, local government, plumbing, engineering, health care, real estate, hospitality, construction, food processing, agriculture and more.

More companies are expected to join, Otterstein said.

The software is not cheap, Otterstein said, but because of ongoing negotiations in other parts of the state and region for the software, he could not reveal the cost. Each school district pays $710 a year, but the brunt of the cost is born by Rock County 5.0 and the Southwest Wisconsin Workforce Development Board.

The system targets young adults, but job-seekers at the Rock County Job Center also can use it, Otterstein said.

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