A first-of-its-kind state program is helping local students go straight from high school to careers in fields like construction and engineering through internships with local companies.
Education Service District No. 112 hosts eight in-person technical courses called “Flipped internships” across 30 Southwest Washington districts, including Cowlitz County.
The program looks to funnel homegrown potential hires trained in needed skills into jobs in Cowlitz County, an area known for its manufacturing and for having an unemployment rate consistently higher than the national average.
‘Bringing people home to work here’
Historically, the state Employment Security Department says Cowlitz County is about two percentage points higher than the national unemployment average during good times and up four points higher during recessions.
As part of “Flipped internships,” companies come into classrooms of middle and high school students, teach them workplace skills and get them started on planning careers early, said Chad Mullen, Career Connect Southwest Washington project manager.
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As of May, eight companies have participated in “Flipped” since Career Connect Southwest launched in 2020, and they hope to invite five more by the end of this school year, Mullen said.
Longview civil engineering firm Gibbs and Olson was one of the eight – and the first Longview-based company – to join the program at RA Long High School, said Rich Gushman, the firm’s president.
Officials from Gibbs and Olson for the last two school years have partnered with RA Long’s STEM students to develop a construction project based on a real example from the firm.
Gibbs and Olson have not yet hired an in-office intern through “Flipped,” Gushman said, but the company’s current internship program has resulted in soon-to-be college graduates who will have a job waiting for them in their hometown.
“We’ve had good luck bringing people home to work here, but we want to try to connect with those people earlier so they know about us before they go to school,” Gushman said. “I did not know this company existed when I was in high school. “
A new look on trades
The focus on career and technical education (CTE), which works to teach specific trades to students and set them up with apprenticeships, has gotten more recognition in recent memory, Mullen said.
“When I was in school, vocational education was the way we talked about it,” Mullen said. school. CTE is not that. CTE is very rigorous and advanced. … It really is for every student because everyone is going to end up working. “
States starting in the 1980s increased required courses for students, emphasizing academic skills like math, literacy and social skills. Career and technical education went on the backburner; research center Brookings Institute estimates between 1990 and 2009, the number of CTE credits earned by high schoolers dropped 14%.
Mullen said he has noticed the state is now acknowledging that students in more rural counties, with local jobs that require specialized skills, should have the option to take those classes. As of 2019, the state Employment Security Department reports one-sixth of Cowlitz County’s employment base was in manufacturing.
Participation in CTE does not mean a student is more or less likely to graduate, or that they will enroll in college, but it can predict a higher chance of employment, according to Brookings.
And employment is what many sectors need during recent supply shortages, lack of applicants and skyrocketing prices.
“As folks experience the shortages in so many fields, there’s a new appreciation for students that want to work with their hands and are preparing for work,” Mullen said.
More local options
High school students across Cowlitz County have access to dual credit programs focusing on these technical skills, hoping to help them get jobs in the most available regional sectors like technology, engineering and natural resources.
Through the Lower Columbia College’s career and technical education program, 18 high schools and districts – including Longview School District, Kelso High School, Rainier High School and the Vancouver School District – currently offer college credits for students.
Locally the most popular include classes in computer science, robotics, construction and automotive technology, all of which can transfer to any Washington state two-year college or institution and some four-year colleges, according to LCC’s website.
Just last week, Kalama School District got more than $ 300,000 in state grants to fund a new computer lab and robotics courses at Kalama High School. The grant also allows students to earn up to 12 computer science dual credits at LCC, an increase from the original eight.
A state law passed this year also increased the funding per pupil in career and technical education classes, according to the bill’s text. It secures ways for public school districts to financially support these classes, also requiring them to report how many students are enrolled in them.
Emily Buker, a Gibbs and Olson intern who came on-board through LCC, said she was not yet sure what she wanted to do after her time as a manufacturing major at LCC, so she took her supervisor’s suggestion to join the firm as a month-long trainee.
“This is the first internship I’ve done and I have really enjoyed it,” Buker said. “I feel like I’ve learned a lot, and learned a lot of how to do real-world stuff.”