“When things go wrong, don’t quit,” Robert Brown told me, paraphrasing the famous inspirational poem of the same name.
Brown, a senior at Chattanooga High School of Arts and Sciences, plans to major in computer science at Middle Tennessee State University, and eventually earn two master’s degrees.
He’s already been inducted into his school’s honor society, a fact he dutifully added to his current résumé. Brown is now in his second year participating in Step-Up Chattanooga, a program that connects students with local businesses as a way of preparing the city’s future workforce.
“Participants are promised an interview, not a job,” Brown told me. Fortunately for him, last summer he was offered a job interning at the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce. It truly was a “step up” from the fast food jobs he’d held previously, he told me, and he benefitted from the program’s emphasis on developing soft skills.
Now, Brown volunteers at the Chamber two days a week and encourages his friends to apply to Step-Up.
“I tell them not to be put off by the 500-word essay that’s required as part of the application,” Brown says. “It’s worth it.”
Preparing the Future Workforce
Step-Up Chattanooga is just one of several programs developed “to help employers find employees through nontraditional sources,” says Mattie Moran, director of Workforce Development and Education at the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce.
“We found that a lot of people were not prepared with soft skills,” she says.
To help address that lack, for the last 16 years Moran has led the Chamber’s workforce development program, including initiatives like the one Brown is involved in.
Brown is one of 205,000 students Moran’s programs have helped since 2001, including the award-winning Reality Check, an interactive experience that allows ninth graders to learn about budgeting and the connection between education and income; and Career Crunch, a two-day career fair at which local businesses inform students of the educational requirements for jobs at their companies, encouraging students to plan for their future now.
The success of these programs depends to a great degree on Moran’s ability to harness the power of volunteers.
“We teach over 15,000 students each school year and have over 1,000 community volunteers,” Moran says. Reality Check, a household budgeting program, remains the most popular with both the students and the volunteers.
“The students learn financial planning, debt management, student loan management,” says Moran. To make sure the programs are meeting students’ needs, the students, parent volunteers, teachers, and guidance counselors are surveyed.
“Their feedback has helped us to improve the programs,” which are made available to all students, says Moran. “It was important to the board to serve all the schools. The economic impact of the volunteer hours is $3 million.”
Programs like the ones at the Chamber may be developed more widely in an attempt to foster the development of soft skills—which include communication skills, interpersonal skills, flexibility, and critical thinking—in the future work force.
To find out more, visit the Chattanooga Area Chamber website.