Career, or vocational, training has traditionally aimed toward getting students blue collar or service industry jobs. That’s still true. But in Beloit, school officials want to add tech jobs to the list.
Until this past August, Ryan Rewey led Beloit Schools’ REACH program – it’s the modern version of the old vo-tech program, with classes, but also apprenticeships and mentorships to help prepare students, as the name suggests, ‘reach’ for college or career, in a variety of fields. Rewey says extensive partnerships outside the classroom are key.
“The school building is not the only learning environment. One’s community is the learning environment,” he says.
Rewey says the high school’s hospitality, automotive and manufacturing programs have been very successful, with students working at a number of area businesses. But as he looked at the employment landscape, he saw an explosion of jobs in the tech field, like web marketing, programming, network development and management.
“So we wanted to make sure that we were being proactive and giving students the opportunity. We do have courses within our building that teach information technology as well as computer science, but we wanted to make sure that students were mentored by professionals that are in the industry,” Rewey says.
Irontek is a tech incubator that’s located in the Ironworks mixed use development along Beloit’s downtown riverfront. It’s within walking distance of the high school. Rewey says it was a logical choice for what’s being called Irontek U. He says it will be an opportunity for the students, but also local businesses who often complain about the lack of a trained workforce.
“Those organizations or companies or industry partners that are willing to work with us, and to work with our students, are almost handpicking their employees,” he says.
Rewey says that’s because the business mentors can show students what skills are really relevant to their industry, and see that they acquire those skills.
Erin Claussen is the Community Manager at Irontek. She says the group and its neighbors are on board with Irontek U.
“We’ve got a couple companies here on the Ironworks campus who’ve dedicated employee time, in addition to the members here who says they’re more than happy to have their employees spend some time with the students,” she says.
One of those Irontek businesses that already had students working with it this summer is Resonate Web Marketing. It’s run by husband wife Rick McGrath and Anna Kelly. McGrath says one of their clients is the Beloit school district, and they’ve worked with a couple of students remotely over the last few years. The company’s move from their home into Irontek several months ago provided a chance to expand on that.
“As soon as we were here, we knew that immediately, we’ve got a place for students to come and intern with us, and do some work on a range of different projects,” he says.
McGrath says the work with the students has been mutually beneficial. And he says he’d be happy to hire one of them if a job at his firm became available.
Breanna Sorensen is one of the students working at Resonate. She’s worked other jobs, but not like this one.
“It’s a great experience to be at a place like this because you’re not just stuck doing the same thing. It’s a new project all the time. So it gives you an idea, it’s like, it’s the work that they do, so it’s an idea of what you could look forward to in the future,” she says.
Cheyenne Stavin also works at the firm as a part-time writer. She’s interested in mass communications or journalism. But her only experience had been a year writing columns for the school newspaper.
“So I didn’t really have any experience of actually really writing a really good quality article. And they kind of taught me how to pick out the pieces of whatever direction or whatever story they’re trying to catch. It’s closer to the real world than a school newspaper is, for sure,” Stavin says.
Rewey says students like Sorensen and Stavin, and the others in the program, are also acquiring something else companies are looking for: “soft skills,” such as working on a team and meeting project deadlines. He says that will stand them in good stead in future job searches.
Rewey says the plan is to build on the students’ experience this summer, start small this first school year, say with five or ten students, and then see how Irontek U can develop and grow from there.
Rewey says other school districts, technical colleges and businesses have expressed interest in joining the Irontek U program. It seems they too realize that for students interested in getting into the tech industry, the future is now.