Local seventh graders explore the career options available at Burke

Jason Koon The News Herald

What do you like most about this career? What education or training do I need for this career? What can I do now to prepare myself for this career?

These are some of the questions Burke County seventh graders asked local industry and employers Friday at the Burke County Public Schools Middle School Career Fair.

Held at the Foothills Higher Education Center in Morganton, the career fair brought together all seventh graders in the district with more than 35 business, industry, government and education partners to explore local career opportunities and career paths. Vendors represented a variety of entities from large manufacturing plants to small businesses, state governments, and organizations dedicated to education and workforce development. There was also a local funeral home.

“It’s important to know about the jobs that are available in the community,” said BCPS Director of Career and Technical Education Casey Rogers. “We’ve got everything from our CTE programs here to show potential careers: firefighting, agriculture. We have Western Piedmont, manufacturing, furniture, James Tool, so there’s a lot of diversity in the vendors.”

Each student was given an interview sheet when they walked in the door, a brief set of verbal instructions, and then they were released to learn about the opportunities they will soon have in Burke County.

For a little over 45 minutes, the students spoke with nurses, manufacturers, university professors, government program directors and business leaders. They saw samples of equipment used in various trades and touched products made in Burke County factories.

Students also learned about the training opportunities available through WPCC and the services offered by NCWorks, from paid internships to resume writing support. They even got to drive a robot.

On the interview sheets, students found sample questions for future employers and advice on how to present them in an interview. Rogers said soft skills such as how students present themselves and interview skills are important aspects of workforce development that were often overlooked in the past.

Young options

Seventh grade may be too early for students to start preparing for adult careers, but Lora Melott, NCWorks program coordinator, said the earlier students start thinking about careers, the less likely they are to become “choice young.”

Young people of choice are defined as young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are not in school and unemployed. According to statistics provided by Work in Burke, 22.2% of Burke County’s 16- to 24-year-olds fell into this category in 2021, nearly 10% higher than the North Carolina average.

Working with young prospects is a big part of what Melott does and keeping students from falling into this category is a significant reason why BCPS hosts the career fair. Rogers said the more the district can do to connect future employees with future employers, the better it will be for both students and local businesses.

“We obviously know they’re not going to decide what they’re doing in seventh grade,” he said. “Part of the CTE curriculum is to start those students at a younger age.”

Community connections

BCPS Superintendent Mike Swan said it’s important for students to learn about the types of opportunities available in Burke County.

“The career fair is a wonderful opportunity to see what’s out there in our community so that our educational programs can meet the needs of the community,” she said.

Nick Plemmons, Continental’s talent acquisition specialist, said making connections is a big reason his company participates in the career fair.

“We try as much as we can to get out into the community and really inform the students,” she said. “We work closely with our education partners to make sure we match what they’re teaching and vice versa and offer apprenticeship programs.”

Rogers said the event would not be possible without local business and industry partners in the neighborhood.

“These great partnerships with the community allow all the middle school seventh graders to come out and see what kind of career and job opportunities are out there,” he said.

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