Giving Thought: Educating kids about the working world |

Giving Thought: Educating kids about the working world

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought

Families spend a lot of time and energy on K-12 education and the importance of good grades, but we tend to overlook the tricky transition from school to real-world work.

Kirsten McDaniel, founder and executive director of Carbondale-based YouthEntity, provides real-world experiences to local middle and high school students in an effort to prepare them for future success. Recently, she partnered with several construction industry executives on “Engineering and Construction Company,” an experiential program in which local high school students get a hands-on taste of a ground-up building project.

Aspen Communtiy Foundation: Please describe YouthEntity’s mission and how this program fits in.

Kirsten McDaniel: For seven years, we’ve provided career-development opportunities in the hospitality industry, mainly through pastry arts, culinary arts and restaurant management. We also have an architecture program coached by Gino Rossetti.

Last February, I was invited to speak to the Aspen Community Foundation’s Business Roundtable. Mostly I discussed the successes we’d had in our hospitality program, but I noticed the room was filled with construction-industry representatives. I thought, “Here’s an opportunity to create a career-development program in construction.”

After that meeting, I sent out an email asking if any of the construction industry people would want to work with me. Right away, Seth Cole of Gallegos Corp. and Mark Gould Jr. of Gould Construction stepped forward. Shortly thereafter, Sandy Lowell, who is retired but had a long and successful career with Wagner Equipment, stepped up. These three gentlemen became my team and my coaches for the program.

So, YouthEntity already had the architecture component, but this fall we’ve added the other pieces of the construction industry, too. We’re helping kids to try these careers on for size, understand what these careers involve, so they can make informed decisions about their future. This approach reflects our mission of providing real-world learning experiences to prepare youth for future success.

ACF: What’s happening right now?

KM: We’re midway through the program. It started a couple of weeks after school began in September, and it will conclude in the middle of December. The kids receive elective credits at their high school and tremendous exposure to the workplace. They also spend valuable time with these three gentlemen, most of whom can provide actual employment opportunities.

It was Sandy’s idea to organize the curriculum around building a house. So each session we look at the materials and techniques that builders use for the different stages of a construction project. It’s all to prepare them for their class project, which is a doghouse — or really, a dog palace. It’s about 50 square feet, with two bedrooms, custom trusses, custom windows and doors. So they’re not just building the house, but also making decisions about the features and benefits of the house.

We have five kids in the program and we meet from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays. It’s like a job, with 100 percent attendance expected. Normally our classes meet at YouthEntity but they couldn’t really build a doghouse here, so we decided to meet at Gould Construction. The kids are in a real workplace, they fill out timecards and they have their own cubbies right next to all the employees. They love it.

ACF: Did you find the students or did they find you?

KM: We list our career-development, after-school classes in the high school course catalogs. Then we work with the counselors, who might convene a group of kids who are interested. We’ll go in and present to the kids and talk to them about our programs and what to expect. We do some advertising in the local paper and kids come to us from all of those avenues.

There’s a two-step enrollment process. First, the students enroll at their school so it’s on their course roster. Second, they have to fill out a YouthEntity application, which involves their parents and requires them to take an extra step.

ACF: How do you know if the program has been successful?

KM: First, did they complete the dog palace on time? Did they run behind and, if so, how did they solve it? The real world has deadlines and consequences.

Also, did everyone attend and participate? A third measure would be, “what did you learn? Is this industry a good fit for you? Or is this not for you?” Either conclusion is valuable, because it’s about helping kids understand what they want to do after high school. If kids have a purpose in their post-high school life, then they’ll chase their dreams with determination because they know what their next step is.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of the Aspen Community Foundation and the Aspen to Parachute Cradle to Career Initiative.