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Young W.Va. students learn about alternatives to college

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia students are learning about alternatives to college before they even hit high school.

Last week, an assembly was held at South Charleston Middle School to teach students about job opportunities in the manufacturing industry.

The week before, fifth-graders from Mary C. Snow West Side Elementary School in Charleston visited the Ben Franklin Career Center, where they helped older construction students assemble birdhouses and played with medical-assistant students' blood pressure cuffs.

During a statewide education seminar held in Charleston on Tuesday, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin encouraged business leaders to target students before they're in high school, to prepare them for the job market -- whether that means going to college or heading straight into the workforce.

Tomblin said educators and business leaders alike should foster young students' ambitions by helping them select the right classes for college, but if a child is not interested in pursuing a degree, that's OK, too.

"If you choose that you don't want to go to college, we've got vocational programs. If that's what a child is interested in, then we should be able to make sure that they get that kind of training," Tomblin said last week at a seminar hosted by the Education Alliance. "If they have no interest in going on to higher education, then they should be able to do a job when they graduate."

About 60 percent of high school seniors in West Virginia go on to college, according to the state Higher Education Policy Commission. Only 25 percent of low-income students in the state enroll in college.

According to the HEPC's master plan, unveiled last year, the number of jobs that require a college degree will increase by 20,000 by the year 2018, while nearly half of all jobs will require some sort of postsecondary training.

"Every job does not require a four-year education, and I think that most of the jobs that we're going to be seeing will require an associate's degree or certificate," Tomblin said, "but we've got to be able to grasp these children while they're in middle school to get them on the right path that they are interested in doing."

A group of West Virginia University students is doing just that -- traveling to the state's middle schools to teach students about jobs available with the West Virginia Manufacturers Association.

That's because 50 percent of the manufacturing workforce will hit retirement age within the next five years -- about the time the state's current eighth-graders will graduate from high school, according to Jordan Pack, digital media director for the WVMA's new public relations campaign.

"These students are going to be ones that we need in the industry. It's such a huge and growing industry in West Virginia, with the average manufacturing salary starting at $45,000," Pack said. "One of the main things we tell the students is that only 17 percent of West Virginians will actually graduate from a four-year college, so we're saying: 'College is good, but it's not going to work for an overwhelming majority of you.'"

Paula Potter, principal of Ben Franklin Career Center, which allows high school students to obtain certification in everything from plumbing to pre-nursing, said that while the state is promoting career exploration at a younger age than ever before, it doesn't mean educators are swaying students away from college.

At Ben Franklin, Potter teaches a "college and career-ready" method.

"I would never propose not going to college, but I just think, as adults, we need to look at all opportunities available to kids today, because the world is changing," she said. "I think it only empowers the kids -- to have both skill sets. Let's face it, when kids go to college, there's quite a bit of expense associated with that, and this allows them to get a part-time job that's better than entry-level.

"I don't think we should ever label a kid as going to college or not going to college."

Potter and the WVMA are working to debunk stigmas associated with vocational learning.

"This industry is for people good at math and computers and technology," Pack said. "People think of manufacturing and think heavy, greasy, dangerous -- but today's jobs are mostly computer-based."

Potter said she talks to her students every day about the stereotypes associated with not going to college.

"It's hard to change engrained ideas that people have about this type of schooling. Students get a wonderful experience at career and tech centers, but it needs to be conveyed in a more positive light," Potter said. "They're making more money, they're employable and they're getting accepted into college."

The WVMA will host its first "Manufacturing Extravaganza" on Nov. 16, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., in West Virginia State University's student union.

The event is targeted at middle and high school students and will feature businesses such as DOW Chemical Co. and NGK Sparkplug, talking about employment opportunities. There also will be up to $3,000 in giveaways.

For more information, follow ManuPathWV on Twitter or visit the Manufacturing Pathways Facebook page.

Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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