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Plant City Career Academy works to bridge the gap between high school seniors, companies

Students Ashley Bhagwandeen, Sariah Herrera reflect hope for their aspirations at the Plant City Career Academy's "Future Fair." The fair is part of a comprehensive part by the academy to bridge the gap between high school seniors and careers available to them after high school graduation. TAYLOR CARLOUGH | Special to the Times.
Published Oct. 18, 2018

PLANT CITY – What started as a grassroots movement of volunteers looking to educate high school students on workforce development has grown into a new addition to the English class curriculum for hundreds of Hillsborough County seniors.

It's a huge step for the Plant City Career Academy, a part of the newly-minted nonprofit Workforce Development Partners that's looking to bridge the gap between graduating students and area companies in need of skilled workers.

"The businesses are throttled and they want to grow. They're prepared to grow, but they need workforce," said Yvonne Fry, founding member of the Plant City Economic Development Corporation, which spearheaded the career academy. "This is middle ground. This is what creates that bridge to prepare and connect the kids with the great jobs in our community."

Seniors at Plant City High School, Durant High School and Simmons Career Technical Center now have the career-focused information embedded in their English classes. The academy is in talks with the Greater Brandon Area Chamber of Commerce, Middleton High School and Pinellas County officials on how it can help to replicate its workforce development program in their communities. The goal is to saturate Hillsborough County, Fry said, and the program's success is promising.

"We hope we can be a catalyst statewide in redefining the conversation and the processes around engaging and helping these kids be prepared for much stronger success in their careers," Fry said.

The Plant City Career Academy began in 2016 at Plant City High School out of a desire to help students who aren't college or military-bound find good careers. It's estimated that 80 percent of students nationally will not complete four-year degrees, those that do often grapple with student loan debt.

"Ultimately, we said what can we do for these kids?" said Scott Brooks, the school district's workforce connections officer. "Can we do something unique and special that's going to make an impact on our community?

"Because the reality is most college kids are going to go and get some type of job and they're going to contribute to society. But if we don't get these other kids working and get them in a good job and career, then we're going to be paying for it."

The career academy's first year proved so successful that it expanded to Durant and Simmons in 2017-18. Now, by expanding the program into a required English course for seniors at those schools, the academy is able to reach thousands. The curriculum, developed by educators, meets state requirements and will teach students about resume writing, interview skills, proper work and interview attire and how to advance in a career.

Fry said the academy is focusing on partnering with those companies that have entry level positions with a given career path. They want to make the careers relatable to the students so they understand what it means to work in industries such as logistics or manufacturing.

"Ultimately we want them to see the jobs behind everything they touch, consume and experience and we're showing them how they can step across the line from graduation directly into a job," Fry said.

The academy holds an annual "Future Fair" where students get the chance to meet employers, make a good first impression and learn more about what's involved in workforce skills training. They also tour local companies to get a behind-the-scenes look at the whole operation.

"This is purely to help our kids understand that there are good jobs and here's the skills you'll need to get them and here's how you obtain them," said Susan Sullivan, Plant City High School principal.

Brooks said area companies are in desperate need of welders, electricians, auto mechanics and pipefitters. The nursing field, he said, also continues to struggle to meet the demands of a growing elderly population.

The demand for these jobs will only continue to grow as Tampa and the surrounding area increases in population. Construction jobs are in high demand, with an endless array of vacant positions to keep up with infrastructure demands. Businesses partnering with the academy, such as Star Distribution Systems, James Hardie and Stingray Chevrolet, believe student workforce training will be a local economic driver as some their paychecks will go back into the community.

"The reality is that there are a lot of trades that don't require a four-year degree. These are entry level positions with companies that pay well and they've got a job for life if they choose to stay on that path," said Jake Austin, president of the Plant City Economic Development Corp.

One of the challenges facing the Plant City Career Academy is lifting the stigma attached to what's expected of a student following graduation.

"There's been such a heavy emphasis on the kids that are going to college that that's the perception – that everybody is. The reality has always been that the backbone of America are these jobs," Fry said.

For more information on the Plant City Career Academy, visit plantcitycareeracademy.com.

Contact Crystal Owens at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

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