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NiswongerCAREIn January 2017, the Niswonger Foundation announced CareerConnect, a new workforce readiness and career exploration initiative for 10th - 12th graders. This three-year program, in partnership with Greene County and Greeneville City Schools and local industry, is designed to provide students the opportunity to explore career paths, develop "soft" skills, earn workforce readiness credentials, and gain real-world work experience. The pilot program officially began in the Fall of 2016 with the selection of 100 10th grade participants, called Explorers. Twenty Explorers were chosen from each of the five high schools located in Greene County. Since that initial class, a group of 100 Explorers, 20 9th graders from each high school, has been selected each spring.

The Niswonger Foundation has initiated this project to guide and support students in building the critical skills necessary for future workplace success. The focus of the project is on high school students who are most in need of developing an understanding of career opportunities. Other than jobs held by family members, friends, or seen on TV, students are limited in their understanding of careers available to them. Often, they have had little or no support for considering personal options and identifying their unique skill sets. Students who are not viewed as "college bound" are, historically, among the least likely to receive career counseling in their school environments.

These students are provided simulated and real-world work experiences, as well as mentoring support. There is a focus on the critical skills that will help to ensure their successful transition to work. This program allows them to more broadly explore career options and will better credential them for future job opportunities with such tools as the Work Ethic Diploma and WorkKeys assessment. The program provides an opportunity for students to have excellent role models and personalized support.

Law Loving, an alumnus of the Niswonger Scholars program, is the coordinator of the CareerConnect program for the Niswonger Foundation. He has an undergraduate degree in public health and economics from Tulane University, and a master's degree in business administration from East Tennessee State University.

Explorers participate in monthly after-school meetings at their respective high schools. Through this effort, they build soft skills such as communication, teamwork, and financial literacy. In between monthly meetings, students work on take-home assignments that focus on career exploration and reinforce the soft skill development that takes place in the monthly meetings.

The program extends beyond the regular school year, as well. Over the summer, participants in CareerConnect gather at Greene Technology Center (GTC) for a two-week CareerConnect Summer Experience. The Summer Experience gives participants the opportunity to take field trips to post-secondary educational sites, like Walters State and TCAT Morristown, and local businesses. Explorers are able to participate in hands-on projects and demonstrations at GTC that will give them a feel for different career paths.

Explorers remain in the program throughout the remainder of high school. During 11th grade, students continue to develop soft skills at monthly meetings and participate in the Summer Experience. In 12th grade, Explorers are eligible to complete internships with local industry sponsors and receive personalized support as they prepare for post-secondary education and their careers. Two students completed the first CareerConnect internships during Summer 2018, a number that is expected to grow over time.

The goal of CareerConnect is simple: to provide high-school students with the skills and opportunities to be successful when they enter the workplace. While the project initially included 100 students per year, this pilot is designed to be adaptable to other high schools in Northeast Tennessee and beyond.

“The better job we do preparing young people for the workplace, the easier it will be to attract new employers to our region, and provide better opportunities for their futures.” Scott M. Niswonger