Guest column: On-the-job experience builds a skilled workforce | AspenTimes.com

Guest column: On-the-job experience builds a skilled workforce

Tamara Tormohlen
Guest column

Aspen Community Foundation, Board Photo, Mar. 13, 2014

One of life's most challenging transitions is the one from school to the workforce. No matter how skilled a classroom student might be, a professional environment will present entirely new demands.

Even when a student has developed essential job skills — from operating a machine to creating a business plan — the pace and pressure of the "real world" are difficult to emulate in a classroom. Bridging this gap has always been problematic, and it's become more so in the globalized, technology-driven economy of the 21st century.

Well-paying jobs in today's economy require more skills and experience than ever before. According to the Colorado Department of Higher Education's Job Skills Report from February, 75 percent of job openings in the next decade will require skills obtained through continued study after high school.

This is why our region's Cradle to Career Initiative emphasizes summer jobs and internships as part of the formula for college and career readiness. Anything that helps connect the classroom to the real-life, modern-day workplace is hugely important, and this is the season when students are looking for productive ways to use their upcoming summer.

Mark Gould Jr., chief operating officer for Glenwood Springs-based Gould Construction, said virtually half of the young adults who take entry-level roles with his company lack the motivation or focus to advance in the company or take advantage of the job experience. If they had more career awareness or a clearer sense of direction, he said, then they would probably perform better for the company and extract more skills and knowledge from being on the job.

Career fairs, internships and summer job placements all help to build awareness and connections between students and employers, Gould said.

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"The bridge we're trying to build is, for example, getting kids into their sophomore year in high school with some kind of direction to go," he said. "What do you want to do? Trying to develop some level of awareness early on."

On-the-job experience, even in a menial position, helps a student to understand the workplace and the expectations that accompany that first handshake with a new boss.

Statewide, 77 percent of high school students graduate on time. Local numbers are higher, with the Aspen-to-Parachute average around 87 percent. But graduating high school is no longer enough to find a well-paying job.

Creating college and career opportunities for all of our young people requires focused, sustained cooperation between people in K-12 education, government, industry, higher education, career and technical education and more. Significant effort is required by the young adults as well, but those who put a few months of real effort into an internship typically walk away with a whole battery of skills and tools, a better understanding of what they want to do with their lives and maybe a job offer in the future.

In the fall, Roaring Fork High School graduate Shay Gianinetti is headed for Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction to study film production and music. He said his high school experience shooting and editing documentaries in the Be Heard after-school program gave him invaluable exposure to the craft.

"The hands-on experience enabled me to get a feel for the profession," he said. "It enabled me to see it and do it, not just learning from a textbook and imagining how it would be."

Employers who participate in this process — whether it's through a booth at a career fair or a full-blown internship program — stand to gain potential employees, of course, but they also help raise the collective bar by nurturing a skilled local workforce to compete in today's economy.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of the Aspen Community Foundation.

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