Preparing students for jobs: College and career academy is helping students get ready for the future

THINC College and Career Academy is finishing its third year in Troup County, and in that time it has attempted to tackle the task of preparing local students for jobs in the county.

THINC College and Career Academy is a charter program part of the Troup County School System that focuses on technical skills and soft skills. Students in the program receive grades on everything from robotic programing and city planning to dressing up and being on time for class. These focuses directly correlate with the expectations of the industry where they hope to work after graduation. It is free to students in the Troup County School System.

“We are very focused on high demand, high skill, high job growth in Troup County and in this region,” said Dr. Kathy Carlisle, the chief executive officer of THINC. “We have added game design, so we have mechatronics — which is advanced manufacturing — engineering, health care, marketing, business, energy and game design. Those are our pathways and our focus.”

The program served 640 students in Spring 2018. Of that number, 429 students studied on campus, 81 took part in work-based learning and 130 were dual enrolled with West Georgia Technical College.

“Everyone wants to come here because it is a really good experience, and you get to get a headstart,” Thalia Figueroa, a sophomore in the healthcare program at THINC. “It prepares you and gives you a taste of what college is going to be like because it goes at a fast pace.”

The program will begin accepting homeschool and private school students, as well as students from other counties starting during the 2018-2019 school year. Out of county students will have to pay a small fee and state funds follow those students. Out of county students will only be placed in open spots following registration by Troup County students, according to Carlisle.

Soft skills

Carlisle said that THINC has listened closely to what businesses say they are looking for in employees, and surprisingly — or perhaps unsurprisingly — one of the most sought after skill sets was not engineering, marketing or the other similarly impressive expertises that are taught in the program. The most looked for skill is the ability to be on time, wearing the right clothes and being able to interact with customers and co-workers, or what THINC refers to as soft skills.

“We have soft skills here which is very helpful,” said Tal Thompson, a senior in THINC’s marketing program. “I like to wear t-shirts and jeans most of the time, and so we have professional dress Tuesday, when we have to wear professional dress, and that is 30 percent of your grade. That really helps not just me, but people at THINC be aware of how to dress professional.”

This focus also impacts behavior in the school.

“This is something that we watch — our discipline — because our focus is soft skills, so we want to know that what we are teaching students in the class about changing their behavior and their character and how they perform is translating into our referrals to the office,” Carlisle said. “It is really less than 2 percent. It is usually pretty quiet at THINC Academy. When we have an outburst, everybody is sort of in shock. That is compared to 6.8 percent statewide average, so we have a much lower average than other schools here in our county.”

These soft skills are often built in as part of classes on other subjects, but they can stand alone in cases like THINC Fast, a cross between job interviews and speed dating that builds students’ ability to interview for jobs.

“Basically, you take marketing classes, like I am really into hospitality and tourism, so I take hotel management and that kind of stuff,” Thompson said. “This year I decided to focus on job interview, so that is what my competition was this year.”

Thompson has taken part in THINC for three years. She will graduate from Troup High School in May, and like many of the students in the program, she plans to attend college after graduation.

“About a third [of our students] say they plan to go to college,” Carlisle said. “A third of them are going to work and college, and then a third of them are going to go to work. What we know statistically and looking at information and data about kids going to college is a lot of these kids that go to college, they may go one semester and then they are back. I am saying that to say that the kids that are coming back home to stay in this area is probably going to grow over the years and over the months after graduation.”

Careers

The program also focuses heavily on ensuring that students have the experience needed to obtain in demand jobs after graduation.

“One thing that we’ve had a huge focus on this past year is working with industry to hire students,” Carlisle said. “Right now, in Troup County the industry will not hire students unless they are 18. We need them to have work experience when they are 16 and 17, so they have brought in professionals from all over the state of Georgia to work with our industry to help them learn that they can provide these work experiences for kids. I am happy to tell you that we have 15 companies that have told us they are interested in opening their doors for at least one of our students to work with them starting next year.”

Students are already seeing the results of some of that work.

“It gives us a lot of real life opportunities,” Thompson said. “We get to meet different people in our community with their companies. I have actually gotten a job with Interface through THINC. I got to do an internship over the summer, and now they’ve hired me part time. I think that definitely helps because I’ve been able to be in different job interviews and do stuff like that so it will be easier for me after high school to go into a job interview and be more confident with that.”

That preparation also includes obtaining skills that they will need once they begin work.

“We did CPR [training], and we actually got to practice on dummies,” Figueroa said. “They had machines that you could plug into the dummies. It was really realistic. Basically, everybody in my class got CPR certified for free for a whole year, so that is something you definitely couldn’t do at your base school.”

Students also have the opportunity to meet with industry leaders while in the program.

“THINC has given me many opportunities to meet multiple leaders around the world,” said Jery Chadwick, a junior in the mechatronics and engineering programs at THINC. “I’ve met the president of all of Kia. I’ve met Lieutenant Governor (Casey) Cagle. My leadership skills have grown dramatically over these last two years.”

Hands on

One of the major distinguishing marks of the program though is its focus on usable job skills. Within THINC classrooms there are hands-on projects that mirror projects by professionals at major companies.

“We are big about project-based learning, so we worked hard training our teachers,” Carlisle said. “We use a lot of our funds for professional development for that. Right now, we have 16 project based learning activities going on. The mayor and council members observed one of those projects last year.”

In the project that was presented to the LaGrange City Council in 2017, THINC students outlined how the city could attract and keep young adults in the city as residents and workers. The detailed presentation listed researched suggestions on what and where developments could be best employed to interest young workers.

“Some of the things that we do in class, I would not know how to do if I just learned it out of a textbook,” Chadwick said.

“At THINC, we do tons and tons of hands on, which that is the way that I learn. I learn by doing — building robots, driving robots, team management, time management. All of those skills are really helping me.”

The students also compete to prove these skills in competitions.

“Our skills USA Team, we had three state gold medal winners and one silver, so this is super exciting,” Carlisle said. “We actually had the first all-girl team in the nation compete in mechatronics and won fifth place, so we are really seeing some exciting things happen with our students, and great accomplishments.”

Earlier this year, THINC students Jery Chadwick and Shayina Griffin won first place in the Human-Robot Interaction section of SkillsUSA Georgia.

“The robot that we are working with, it looks like a small child, and what he is made for is to be a companion for either older people or people with challenges in their life,” Chadwick said.

“I learned how to program him, and it is an amazing opportunity.”

Other contest winners included James Figiel and Jeffrey Stephens in second for additive manufacturing, Claudia Ingram and Savanna Scott in first for mechatronics and Justin Rachalla and Eli Thrailkill in first for robotics and automation technology (test only).

“These kids [in the Robotics Alliance] built a robot, and our robot was so creatively designed,” Carlisle said. “When they competed, they created a 150-pound robot that could actually lift two more 150 pound robots, and we had the only robot in the world — the first robotics — that could do that.”

The future

THINC College and Career Academy has already seen remarkable growth in the short time since it was created, but this may just be the beginning.

“We have developed and written the standards for an international business pathway,” Carlisle said. “This will be the first in the State of Georgia. It will go out to all of the schools in Georgia, but we will be the first school in Georgia to launch that. We wanted to step up general business with all the influence on international business, that — going back to our profile — our kids are engaged locally and connected globally.”