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Kentucky students explore careers with hands-on approach

A student tries on firefighting gear during the SCK Launch Experience. Photo: Bowling Green Chamber of Commerce
Warren RECC gives students a chance to try on lineworker safety gear during the SCK Launch Experience. Photo: Warren RECC Staff
Students get firsthand knowledge by job shadowing at Stupp Bridge in Bowling Green as part of the SCK Launch program. Photos: Bowling Green Chamber of Commerce
Southcentral Kentucky Community & Technical College offers an interactive exhibit during the SCK Launch Experience for eighth-graders.
Photo: Bowling Green Chamber of Commerce
Photo: Bowling Green Chamber of Commerce
Photo: Bowling Green Chamber of Commerce

Students in Warren County Public Schools and the Bowling Green Independent School District are getting a feel for career paths— literally—thanks to a comprehensive education and workforce development program called SCK (South Central Kentucky) Launch. 

The SCK Launch Experience is an interactive career expo held each fall for Warren County and Bowling Green eighth-graders, as well as students from surrounding counties. They can explore job pathways through an array of exhibits sponsored by area industries, including Warren RECC. 

“We typically have a few of our lineworkers there and let students do simulated jobs wearing the lineworker’s gloves. We also show them our drones and our GIS (geographic information system) mapping technology as well,” says Kim Phelps, Warren RECC’s senior director of communications and public relations. 

The event is packed with “equipment that students can touch and feel—from surgery robots to backhoe simulators,” adds Meredith Rozanski, COO/CFO of the Bowling Green Area Chamber of Commerce, which oversees the event. “Students can also talk to people in these careers who are passionate about what they do.” 

Started in 2016, SCK Launch is more than the popular SCK Launch Experience. It also uses school-based career coursework and training opportunities, plus job shadowing for high school juniors and seniors, and job placement fairs for soon-to-be graduates. Teachers can get involved, as well, through summer educator “externships,” where they tour area industries so they can share up-to-date career info with their students. 

The program reaches every student in Warren County and Bowling Green beginning as early as elementary school, where, since 2010, schools in both districts have been using the Leader in Me Program by Franklin Covey, a leadership development program based on Stephen R. Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

“In our school systems, you’re not just assigned the line leader job in kindergarten, you apply for it,” explains Rozanski. “It’s not a curriculum. It’s an operating system, and everybody from district leadership through teachers and bus drivers are trained on how to empower students.” 

Layering on top of the Leader in Me foundation, SCK Launch was added to help students develop the career skills that area employers are seeking—both so-called “soft skills” like responsibility, teamwork and communication; and the direct knowledge of various industries, from hospitality and retail to health sciences and trade skills. 

Students in both school districts select and complete a Career and Technical Education (CTE) coursework pathway during high school with options like marketing and early childhood education as well as horticulture, business or animal science. 

SCK Launch student ambassadors, who are chosen from among the area high schools, have added opportunities for leadership training. 

South Warren High School senior and SCK Launch ambassador Divine Irakiza, for example, has received mentoring from Gary McGuey, a consultant with the Leader in Me program. She was also able to contribute to his podcast Realiteen Talks, an experience that has been her “favorite part of the program,” she says. 

“From our standpoint, the biggest positive outcome (of SCK Launch) has been the increase in opportunities for our students,” says Rob Clayton, superintendent of Warren County Public Schools. “They’re getting to learn about career pathways that exist not only in our community, but across the commonwealth.” 

Business and industry support

From the start, Bowling Green-area businesses and industries have been particularly active in supporting the program, another key to its success. 

Warren RECC, for instance, frequently hosts high school junior and senior job shadowers at its facilities, helping them learn firsthand what goes into running an electric cooperative. “We try to make it hands-on. They get to meet with the lineworkers. They go to our meter shop. They go to our garages,” Phelps says. “The kids have so many great questions, and they come away with a much better understanding of what we do.” 

“These career shadowing experiences—seeing these businesses and organizations and all the different types of career paths that are available just in our community—is really important to show students that you don’t, for example, necessarily have to be a doctor to work in a hospital,” says Holly Whittinghill, a career and college coach at Greenwood High School. “You can be a business major and work in the administrative offices, or you could be in human resources and work in hiring.” 

Houchens Industries has been another active supporter of the program, going so far as to build on-site school stores stocked with school spirit wear and school supplies at both South Warren High School and Warren Central High School, so that students can experience what it’s like to work in retail. 

Students in the schools’ retail and marketing pathways rotate jobs at the store throughout the year, from cashier to management to inventory control, “so they learn what is involved in running a store and the steps required to make their profit margins,” Rozanski says. “Plus, the students can then go into a(n offsite) job interview with confidence, because they have done these jobs before.” 

“Not everyone thinks of retail as a career, and we wanted to help expose students to that possibility, to see if it might be a fit for them,” says Dion Houchins, CEO of Houchens Industries. Houchins feels that, along with hands-on learning for students, the teacher education opportunities are another crucial part of SCK Launch’s success. 

“The teacher externships are awesome,” he says. In past years, Houchens Industries has lined up a full day of experiences at its various subsidiaries— from its grocery stores to its insurance group and construction companies—so educators can see firsthand what skills their students would need to secure a job at each location. 

“Having the chamber’s support and the support of area businesses has been critical, and it’s what has helped make our program a model for other school districts not only across the state, but across the nation,” says Clayton.

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