The importance of connecting students in the Wilkes County schools and local employers was emphasized during Working in Wilkes, an event held Friday in the Stone Center in North Wilkesboro to help educators better address the needs of both groups.
Wayne Shepherd, director of career and technical education for the Wilkes schools, cited the importance of local educators hearing from local employers when he spoke near the end of the day-long inaugural expo. About 120 educators and business representatives attended.
Addressing company representatives, Shepherd said, “We need to learn from you about what you need from us—the type of employee that you’re getting and the number of employees you’re getting. Without you at the table, it’s only us and nothing significant is going to happen.”
After attendees broke up into small groups of company representatives and educators to briefly discuss challenges and opportunities near the end of the day, Shepherd asked a business spokesman at each table to talk.
Some themes that had already emerged were reiterated, including that opportunities await young people with drive and a willingness to work.
Another was concern about work ethic issues among young job seekers, especially expecting too much without being willing to put in “sweat equity” and not showing up for work on time.
The spokesman for one company said young people are drawn more to jobs involving computer technology and he voiced concern about them tending to steer away from jobs with physical labor.
When Shepherd invited Annette Bange, a Tyson Foods Inc. human resources official in Wilkesboro, to speak, she said, “Get us into your classrooms. Start us at the elementary level and then go up. We need to speak about the opportunities we have at the company.” Spokesmen for other companies concurred.
Bange added, “We’re not just production and processing. We have accounting, HR (human resources), quality control, technical, mechanics, welding…. We need the opportunity to come to your location and let your students know there are career opportunities. Tyson is in numerous states. There are opportunities for growth.”
For example, she said, Tyson employs eight nurses full-time and two part-time in Wilkesboro, as well as occupational nurses. She said one full-time nurse with hourly pay at Tyson here made $104,000 last year, which included overtime.
A Craftmaster Furniture spokesman said, “There are a lot of opportunities out there and the school system needs to remember to support all industry, whether it’s food service or manufacturing.”
Rich Voisinet, plant manager of InterFlex in Wilkesboro said, “We have a hiring problem here. At any given time, we’re typically 10 percent below our need. We’ve run the full gamut of how and where we try to hire.”
Voisinet said many employers “are trying to go back to what it was like in the ’70s, ‘80s and early ‘90s, and that’s why we’re all here today…. We’re all trying to hire trade professionals, but it’s gone. So, we’re all looking for the answers to how do we get back.”
He said InterFlex has pursued hiring tradesmen near the end of their employment life. “And now we’re looking at the youth—through age 25—and they don’t exist.”
Voisinet added, “So how do we get back to where we were in the ’80s and ’90s, when we didn’t have enough open positions for the amount of tradesmen who were out there. Now it’s the opposite.” He said many of the challenges discussed during the expo also once didn’t exist.
Voisinet noted that Interflex participates in a new apprenticeship program, a partnership between Wilkes Community College, the Wilkes schools and employers.
He agreed about employers speaking to students and added, “We need to make them get excited about something and hopefully that falls in our field. We’re trying to do everything possible to get to them early and that’s why we’re here today. We need to reverse the cycle somehow.”
He said more kids are going to college today but fewer than half are graduating.
A spokesman for InfusionPoints LLC in North Wilkesboro said the cyber security is a rapidly growing field and InfusionPoints needs more cyber security analysts, programmers and analog engineers. He said the company has had excellent results from the new apprenticeship program, as well as local school interns.
“I just want to thank everyone for allowing InfusionPoints to give back and recruit from here within our own county.” He also said local teachers are providing students with the basic skills the company needs.
Cathy Hyde of Samaritan’s Purse said school groups (teachers and students), church groups and others are welcome to arrange tours of the disaster relief ministry’s facilities on N.C. 268 West in North Wilkesboro. “There’s nothing like seeing them actually do the job…. We can design it just for your group…. Anytime you have a student who may be interested in Samaritan’s Purse, please give us a call.”
Hyde said a person must be a Christian to work at Samaritan’s Purse “because how can you share the love of Jesus unless you are a Christian.”
Earlier in the expo, Cindy Rutz, vice president of human resources at Samaritan’s Purse, spoke about the types of positions the Boone-based ministry is trying to fill as it adds about 160 jobs to its existing 197 in Wilkes with construction of the new 47,000-square foot office building on N.C. 268 East in North Wilkesboro.
Other than discussing salaries, Shepherd asked educators what they need from businesses. When no one spoke, Shepherd said the school system needs companies to provide students “opportunities to get their hands dirty.” He also challenged educators to find the talents or gifts of the students in their classrooms who aren’t engaged.
Shepherd said when he was principal at West Wilkes High, he identified 21 male students who were disengaged and saw that they had failed each math course they took. He said he was able to turn them around by having Hardin Kennedy, WCC transportation technology chairman, and another WCC instructor teach them math concepts and how they’re used in auto mechanics.
“At the end of that semester, each one of them passed their math exam.” Fourteen of the students went on to earn degrees at WCC. “My point is that they weren’t great students…. but they were valuable students in something they finally got interested in.”
Shepherd said educators need to find ways to engage students and employers can help with this by providing internships and apprenticeships.
One Wilkes educator said the first thing students need to hear from employers is that they will teach students the skills they need to perform whatever jobs companies are trying to fill. She said educators need to better emphasize the importance of coming to work on time.
When Kennedy asked employers to contact the college or public schools about being involved in career days and similar events if they aren’t contacted, the spokesman for a company asked for a central location where such events are posted.
Kennedy said that that was a great idea and Shepherd said, “We can make it happen.”