CHEMICAL COMPOUND: Teachers not only got hands-on experience with the chemical industry, but Dow Chemical is partnering with high schools in Port Allen and Brusly to launch a Dow STEM Academy at both schools. (Courtesy Dow Chemical)
This summer, Baton Rouge area high school students might be traveling for vacations, packing their duffel bags for camp or picking up a few extra dollars working a part-time job. Scores of their teachers, on the other hand, were learning about the in-demand STEM jobs their students might one day fill, spending their summer “vacation” at area chemical plants, software development companies and health care facilities.
Over a four-day period in early June, 45 teachers from 10 Capital Region school districts participated in the Baton Rouge Area Chamber’s fourth annual Teacher Externship program. The teachers are split into groups, shadowing workers at one of BRAC’s 12 partner companies and engaging on day-to-day operations. Each teacher receives a $1,000 stipend, but the goal is to have them develop a semester-long plan of action to incorporate whey they learned into micro-lessons within the classroom.
Ethan Melancon, BRAC’s policy and research manager, says the chamber started the externship program as a way to expand STEM partnerships in PK-12 public education. In other words, introduce teachers to the myriad of STEM jobs available to their students in the Baton Rouge region.
“We’ve noticed that the education sphere and the industry sphere were working mainly in silos,” Melancon says. “But teachers can influence careers in all these areas.”
While some job titles like “chemical engineer” require college degrees, many do not. And with a statewide need for skilled labor, the 45 teachers are writing up lesson plans embedded with practical career advice for students, whether they’re on the college track or not.
But before local youth embark on their respective STEM career paths, industry leaders say they must quash a few deep-seated stigmas; namely, that so-called “blue-collar workers” are subpar professionals, that soft skills are passé and that they have to move a state or two over in order to be successful.
This is the regional workforce those teachers were exposed to at the externship program, and the workforce your child might enter in a few years.
Collars are blending
It’s a concept that’s tough for many parents to embrace, Melancon says, but it’s becoming truer as time progresses: the days of a clear-cut divide between white-collar and blue-collar workers are a thing of the past.
“You can move up from one rank to another easier now than you could when only 30 or 40 percent of people went to college,” he says. “Now, everyone and their mom has a college degree.”
Blue-collar workers—typically hourly wage earners—have often been perceived as bringing in a lower annual incomes than white-collar workers, who are normally expected to earn a salary.
But as technology advances and more skilled professionals are needed to operate the new machinery, workers once considered blue-collar are becoming more educated and raking in higher pay than in years past, says Blythe Lamonica, communications manager for the BASF Louisiana site in Geismar.
“We’re in the fourth industrial revolution right now, and it’s all about automation and technology,” Lamonica says.
Experts predict this rise in automation will eventually remove the need for some middle-skill, white-collar jobs involved in routine data processing tasks, such as nurses, accountants and legal aides. However, the current demand for welders—particularly female welders—is higher than ever before.
“We never have enough welders, but the potential to make a lot of money is huge,” says Chase Braswell, a construction engineer with BASF, who, along with electrical engineer Marcus Mason, outlined to 11 BASF externs some benefits that come with industrial career paths like theirs.
A recent high school graduate, for example, could make around $33,000 a year as an entry-level mechanic or contractor for their chemical plant, they explained, earning anywhere from $22 to $36 an hour and receiving overtime pay benefits for working on Fridays, Saturdays or Sundays.
That person could then work their way up the plant’s ranks to a management position—a realistic pathway, they say, as BASF and other plants typically hire from within. They also pull employees from the military, viewing veterans as having the life skills necessary to succeed in a plant.
Dutchtown High teacher Lee Anne Gentry , who externed at BASF, says she gained a “better insight” into their employment process, which she and her colleagues plan to communicate to their students. Those considering an alternate career path can now learn about the “rainbow of jobs” in each field, adds St. Amant High teacher Melissa McCormick.
The bottom line: College is still an invaluable pathway to success, but it’s not the only pathway to success. And there are multiple pathways in a plant.
Soft skills a must
Dave Baxter, general manager of software development company Sparkhound, still gives all his new hires a hardcover copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. Though written in 1936, Baxter says Carnegie’s points are still relevant today, a sentiment echoed by industry leaders throughout the externship program.
While those teetering the millennial/Gen Z edge can normally give quality feedback on a user interface before it’s published, Baxter says, most can’t give a firm handshake.
“That’s still the disconnect in this generation,” Baxter says, and Melancon notes he’s heard the same thoughts from members of BRAC’s education and workforce development working groups.
Though teachers shadowing Sparkhound employees agree soft skills are critical to professional achievement, they’re faced with a harsh reality: There’s no room for them in data-driven statewide curriculums.
“There’s no way to quantify a good personality or communication skills,” says Laci Lemoine, an English and digital media arts teacher from Central High. “If we can’t test it, they won’t put money toward it.”
Still, the five teachers who externed at Sparkhound say their schools work to integrate soft skills assessments into their course offerings, such as in Journeys to Careers and IBCA classes.
They swapped notes, too. Pershauna Butler, a seventh grade math teacher at Port Allen Middle School, shared how she teaches her robotics students how to talk to the judges, allowing them to hone interpersonal skills. And Livingston teacher Meagan Simmons has shown her students YouTube videos on what being a professional looks like, including how to shake a hand, maintain eye contact and draft a résumé.
Small steps like these, they contend, are necessary to see the bigger picture, as put by Iberville teacher Katie Heck: “You can’t just be the guy who’s good at coding. You’ve got to have some other skills to fall back on.”
You can stay
Perhaps the simplest takeaway for students, teachers and parents is this: There are jobs here in Louisiana, and, even more specifically, in the Capital Region.
Over the next 20 years, 55% of the jobs that will be available in Louisiana require a technical degree, Lamonica says. Experts predict the number of STEM jobs to rise 10% in the state within the year. And, as the education community learned, BRAC’s partner companies, among various others, will have jobs to fill.
STEM partnerships aren’t limited to BRAC’s teacher externship program. In May, IBM announced it would work with Tara High School, operating the CyberSTEM Academy within the school. Port Allen and Brusly high schools, similarly, will work with Dow, which will launch the Dow STEM Academy in both schools. Those completing the programs can go on to a four-year university or enter the workforce, with graduates being guaranteed an interview—though not a job—at IBM and Dow.
“You have medical. You have IT. You have construction, engineering, chemical,” Melancon says. “There are endless opportunities in our region.”