BY KAREN CAMPBELL
Weakley County Schools Communications Director
WEAKLEY COUNTY (April 20) – Ensuring that Weakley County students have the skills they need to become future employees of area businesses was the focus of a January discussion and a four-month investment which will now be duplicated in other school systems throughout Northwest Tennessee.
Lindsey Parham, Career and Technical Director for Weakley County Schools, met with representatives from the Northwest TN Workforce Board (NWTNWB), the Weakley County Economic Development Board (WCEDB) and ATA Employment Solutions (ATA ES) at the beginning of the year to create a system-wide career exploration program. Eighth graders and seniors were selected as the target audiences.
“Strategists tell us that we need to capture the imaginations of our students sooner rather than later,” noted Parham. “We wanted to start with an initiative that supported our previous efforts with students who were about to make choices for their high school years and those who were about to leave us for technical schools, universities or going straight into employment,” Parham added.
“The NWTNWB is charged with administering workforce development services in nine counties in Northwest Tennessee: Benton, Carroll, Crockett, Dyer, Gibson, Henry, Lake, Obion, and Weakley. It’s our mission to develop a quality workforce system to meet the needs of area employers and job seekers, so that Northwest Tennessee is an area where business and industry thrive based on the availability of a skilled workforce and a robust talent pipeline” stated Jennifer Bane, Executive Director of the NWTNWB.
“Developing the talent pipeline early is crucial for our future workforce, and our employers. We are so grateful to Weakley County Schools for partnering with us on this project,” Bane added.
The NWTNWB and the WCEDB include business owners, chief executives, operating officers and other executives with optimum policymaking and hiring authority.
ATA ES handles all aspects of human resources management from recruitment to pre-employment screening to benefits management.
After collaborating, the four entities determined the pilot would include a set of age-appropriate training videos on soft-skills such as interviewing and resume writing, industry panels made up of area business leaders pre-recorded for students, and the opportunity for seniors to experience a virtual interview in real-time.
The mock interviews, under the name, “Mock It ‘Til You Rock It, Weakley,” were the last component and completed by Greenfield High School last week.
Thirty-five of the school’s 45 seniors participated in the experience which utilized Premiere Virtual platform licensed to the NWTNWB by the TN Department of Labor. Equipped with a laptop in a private conference room at the school, the “job seeker” entered a virtual lobby to wait for the interviewer.
The look of the initial moments of the program – entering the building and waiting for the interview to occur – is much like that of a video game, explained Maleia Evans, Business Services Representative for NWTNWB, but the interaction with the “potential employer” was in real-time and done as a video chat. Students were pre-assigned an employer, each of whom represented an area industry and were volunteering their time. The experience included direct feedback to the student either at the time of the interview or via a later email.
Evans said the follow-up assessments from the interviewers stressed the politeness and professionalism of the Greenfield students.
“The general consensus is Greenfield is producing great hope for the NWTN workforce pool,” Evans concluded. “We would love for students with their career ambitions to stay in northwest Tennessee and build their life here,” she added.
She acknowledged that while there were ”kinks” to work out in this inaugural event – such as scheduling conflicts which prevented some of the Weakley County High Schools from participating in the mock interviews – the plan is to continue and to expand. Starting the planning process earlier in the school year will enable school counselors to aid in making the scheduling of the event more convenient. Plans are also underway for making the experience available to other counties in the fall.
In addition to the interview and feedback, qualifying seniors who are interested and eligible will also be matched with a summer job opportunity to gain work experience through a grant which funds the wages of the worker. Evans welcomes hearing from any Weakley County employer who is interested in hosting a grant-funded summer worker.
Greenfield senior Hailey Jones revealed she both benefitted from honing her responses for future job opportunities and took note of practices she could apply in her current work-based learning job as the hiring manager at McDonald’s in McKenzie.
Work-based learning is another avenue for local businesses and industries to train up the workforce, explained Parham. In Jones’ case she leaves school at 11: 30 a.m. and works a 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. shift.
A student with a 3.5 GPA, Jones said one of the realizations she had during the mock interview was that she sometimes is not the judge of a person’s potential that she needs to be.
“I want to give everybody a job,” she noted. “I learned to ask more questions and get more information, to let them talk, and don’t ask all the questions.”
The soon-to-be Bethel freshman must have been one of the impressive “candidates” in the mock interviews. She is currently in talks for grabbing one of those summer jobs.
“I’m thrilled with how the experience turned out,” said Greenfield counselor Sherry Page. “The virtual interviews truly captured what it is like to have to show up and impress an employer. It took a little time to get it arranged, but now that I’ve done it, I’m definitely ready to make it happen again next year.”