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ON THE JOB: Recent Ozark graduate Duncan Gohl is among a handful of students who went straight into the workforce.
SBJ photo by Wes Hamilton
ON THE JOB: Recent Ozark graduate Duncan Gohl is among a handful of students who went straight into the workforce.

High Schoolers for Hire: How schools are preparing the workforce before graduation

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In the Wal-Mart Supercenter automotive department in Ozark, Duncan Gohl completes a tire rotation on a silver SUV. Mingled between the tools of his trade, Gohl’s cheeks are smudged with gray dust and his protective goggles preserve the only portion of his face that’s clean.

He looks similar to the other techs in the automotive bay, but his story is unique. When Gohl graduated from Ozark High School in May, he also earned an automotive certification alongside his diploma. With the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence student certification in hand, Gohl had the right qualifications for hire.

“It helped me get this job,” Gohl said of the Wal-Mart position he landed in August. “It proves I have the basic knowledge of the automotive field.”

Gohl is one example of many students who are graduating high school with training and certifications that give them a leg up in higher education or propel them directly into the workforce – something Ozark High School Automotive Instructor Dean Ulrich identifies as a growing trend.

OHS is in its fifth year of offering an automotive certification program. The school also has vocational education opportunities in agriculture, business, computer services, construction trades, engineering, family and consumer sciences, industrial technology, and drafting and marketing.

In the Ozark School District, three out of every four graduates in 2017 enrolled in a two-year college, technical program or a university. Only 17 percent went directly into the workforce, a rate that’s up slightly from the previous year.

Ulrich said the majority of students involved in his automotive program go directly into careers or attend a two-year college.

Similarly, in Springfield Public Schools, the Business Associated Student Education Project aims to connect high school students with on-the-job training. According to the school’s BASE program website, industry opportunities include child care, animal care, clerical, construction, manufacturing, food service, grounds maintenance, health transport services, environmental services and custodial.

“The goal of the program is community-based work experience,” said Krista Robbins, BASE transition and process coordinator. “We focus on transition skills in the workplace, plus academics.”

According to SPS data from 2016, about 80 percent of the 913 participants throughout the 20-year program were employed following graduation.

In the current school year, Robbins said the 50 participating students visit seven host sites in Springfield – including Mercy Hospital Springfield and the Missouri Job Center.

Missy Lucas, SPS assistant director of special services, said although students understand they might not be hired through the program, some are connected to jobs. Case in point, students may earn a certified nursing assistant certification through BASE, and Robbins said three graduates were hired at CoxHealth last year.

Lucas said getting high schoolers integrated with local businesses also showcases upcoming talent.

“People on those job sites, they love our kids and working with them and learning about them,” she said. “So it’s really twofold. It’s giving others in our community the chance to get to know our students – their likes, dislikes and insight on their abilities.”

Programs like the ones at Ozark and Springfield high schools also give students insight into abilities they didn’t realize they had.

Gohl’s career plan didn’t begin in the automotive industry. He initially thought about enlisting in the military, following in his Marine father’s footsteps. Although he still plans to enlist, he now wants to become a heavy equipment mechanic for combat vehicles – skills he said are easily transferable into the civilian world.

Gohl is continuing his training at Ozarks Technical Community College, where he is enrolled in the diesel technician and EMT programs. According to the ASE website, the student automotive certification expires after two years. But Gohl said it’s given him a boost in his continued schooling and career.

“They teach how to work on equipment but having the prior knowledge helps,” he said.

Knowledge is power for employers, too. As more students are getting qualified in high school, Ulrich said employers are rethinking the hiring process. A few businesses each month contact him seeking soon-to-be Ozark graduates as potential employees.

“Shop owners call me and say, ‘Hey, we need somebody now,’” Ulrich said. “The shop owners are changing their thoughts of how to find employees. And that’s encouraging and motivating students.”

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