Otter Valley pilot programs looks to get kids real jobs


BRANDON — Otter Valley Union High School senior Marcus McCullough recently got accepted for an internship, to be followed by an apprenticeship after graduation, with Rob Stubbins Electrical of Rutland. McCullough earned the internship by working with a new program called Real Careers @ Rutland County.

“This program is helping make me who I’m going to be in four or five years,” McCullough said. “By teaching me to go out of my comfort zone they got me the job I’m going to have.”

Real Careers, a pilot program at OVUHS, is trying to help current and recently graduated high school students find careers after they finish school.

The program, funded through a $185,000 grant from the Vermont Department of Labor, looks to connect students with employers in the area to provide them not just jobs, but careers. Through a partnership with Rutland Regional Workforce Investment Board and the Rutland Economic Development Corporation (REDC), the goal of the program is to engage high school seniors and recent graduates and get them into locally available jobs.

“There is the idea that these kids are going off and leaving Vermont, but that’s not always the case. A lot of them are still here, they just don’t know … how to get started on the path to get where they want to be.”

— Real Careers coordinator Michelle Heitkamp

“We are partnered right now with 15 companies throughout the county,” program coordinator Michelle Heitkamp said. “We are focusing on putting these students and young adults into careers in five major Vermont Industries: manufacturing, health care, construction, CDL driving, and adventure-based recreation.”

The need for these types of opportunities for students cannot be overvalued. In his inaugural address last month, Gov. Phil Scott said, “The shrinking labor force was threatening every service we deliver, every program we administer, and every investment we hope to make.”

Heitkamp feels that targeting these students when they are younger will help combat that problem by teaching the students not to limit themselves while also getting them invested in their own futures.

“There is the idea that these kids are going off and leaving Vermont, but that’s not always the case,” Heitkamp said. “A lot of them are still here, they just don’t know what they want to do. Or, they don’t know how to get started on the path to get where they want to be. We want to introduce them to these employers and help make connections. If they can put a face to the employment ad it sometimes makes it easier for them, makes them more willing to apply for a position. There’s a lot of anxiety there.”

The Real Careers program currently has 30 students through two schools and one adult class. Otter Valley has 12 students in the program, Mill River Union High School has 13 students. The adult class consists of five people ranging in age from 19 to 30.  The students are primarily male and come from a low- to middle-income backgrounds.

The Vermont Student Assistance Corporation, a nonprofit agency created by the Vermont Legislature in 1965, recently released a study that had surveyed 85 percent of 2012 high school graduating class members. The report showed that gender, whether a student’s parents attended college, and economic background all influenced whether or not a student would attend college and eventually get a degree.

While graduating high school and going off to a four-year college may be the goal for many, realistically, it is just not possible for some.

A Vermont Agency of Education report shows that six years after graduation, two-thirds of the graduating class will not have a post-secondary degree. The Real Careers program is trying to make sure these grads do not get left out of the Vermont workforce by providing job coaching and showing students a clear path to employment in Rutland County.

“This is not an anti-college program, by any means,” Heitkamp said. “We can help students if they want to go to college, but we also want to show them there are other options. They don’t have to spend the money on the first year of college and get discouraged because they don’t know what they want to do and are building up debt. They can pursue other paths.”

The program was launched in June of 2018 and uses the needs of area employers to develop career-specific roadmaps for students in the five areas of focus while undertaking research to identify additional industry sectors with unmet employment needs.

The goal, says Lyle Jepson, executive director of REDC, “is to create a pipeline to competitive jobs in our region and career growth opportunities.”

That goal will be accomplished by helping students apply to training programs, pre-employment skills training, and internships while also helping students to identify funding sources.

“It’s entirely up to the student what they get out of it,” Otter Valley Principal Jim Avery said. “Some may find a path to a good-paying job right out of school … others may find an affordable way to pursue a college degree.”

Some of the partners of Real Careers program are the Community College of Vermont and Stafford Technical Center, which help to develop new training methods and meet employer needs. Companies participating in the program include GE Aviation, Rob Stubbins Electrical, H. Hirschmann Ltd., Casella Construction and Waste, and Killington Resort.

The funding from the state will allow the program to function for three years. Beyond that, Heitkamp said they will begin to look into sustainability for the future. The program has hired an additional career coach and next year will look to expand to smaller schools in the area. They hope to have 60 students and young adults in the program by the third year.

Heitkamp said that McCullough is the first success story out of the 12 students at Otter Valley but expects there to be many more.

“I’m excited and a little bit nervous, but it’s a good nervous,” said McCullough, who started his internship this past Wednesday. “I might have been able to get this done on my own, but it would have been much harder and have taken a lot longer.”

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