By Stephen Smoot
“You can tell he’s been around vehicles some,” said Franklin mechanic Billy Rowe, smiling as he watched Andrew Mowery get his hands dirty helping to replace a set of front brakes. The Pendleton County High School student said that he enjoys that “satisfaction of fixing it,” while getting hands on experience doing repairs on automobiles.
Mowery is part of the Work Exploration Program offering workforce type education opportunities for students in counties across the state. Pendleton County joined the program last year but some counties, such as Berkeley, started participating as early as 2007.
According to Berkeley County Schools, “the Work Exploration Program is, simply, business owners and managers allowing students to come into their places of business for job observation and educational work experience.” Students receive placements at local businesses to work and learn. They are allowed to “shop” to a certain extent between placements to find what best suits their interest and motivation.
Dolly Rexrode, who administers the program for Pendleton County Schools, said “my prayer each morning has been to help each kid to be the best that they can be.” Through helping the students “experience different jobs,” she is helping them to find which jobs they may want to pursue after graduation, maybe even for a career.
Some students, like Mowery, come in with prior experience. He said, “I started watching videos on You Tube (about auto repair) and it got me interested.” That experience helped him when he was asked to help with complicated tasks. “I’ve learned to take a transmission out,” Mowery explained. “It’s kind of difficult.”
One of the benefits of the program lies in exposing students to high salaried trades fields that give opportunities close to home, such as auto repair. James Alt, a Troublesome Valley based welding company owner with 33 years of experience, enjoys opening young people’s minds to the possibility of a rewarding career where one can earn high salaries and/or own their own business.
“Welding work has really been good to me,” Alt explains. He added that “I encourage these kids to go to trade school.”
Just as in other placements, Alt emphasizes educating his mentorees in how to do the job both correctly and safely. “I tell these young boys, always wear safety glasses,” and other required equipment. He warns, “you will get burnt, but just have to toughen up.” He also laughed and said, “sometimes it’s hot. Sometimes it’s cold. But you’re never comfortable.”
On this day, Alt was working with Hunter Roberts and Nicholas Shifflett. He asked Roberts, “how much welding have you done?” Roberts responded by saying he’d done some stick welding. Alt then dispensed safety equipment, made sure the boys had it on correctly, then commenced instruction.
Shifflett explained that learning with his hands was “a lot more fun than reading about it.” As the boys worked, Roberts showed his experience and interest. At the end of the session, Roberts indicated that he would like to continue working with Alt. He reasoned that “you can always use welding.” Shifflett, however, opted to return to small engine repair at Potomac Hardware, a job in which he feels more comfortable.
That is the point of the placement, not to make a single commitment and carry it through, but to try different jobs out to see what will motivate them as adults.
Rexrode adds that “the businesses have been very supportive and go out of their way to teach them or let them experience different things each time we go.”
Not all placements take place in the trades. One student will soon start working with the Pendleton County Sheriff’s Department. Other placements include the courthouse offices, Tiny Tots Day Care, the Potomac Highlands Recreation Center, Hott’s Ag Service, Brandywine Elementary School, and Faithful Friends Animal Clinic.
Jakob Campbell is in his second year working with Subway of Franklin. Campbell says that the benefits include “getting the job training. I’m planning on trying to find a job after I graduate.” Placements focus not just on skills needed in certain jobs, but also the “soft skills” of being on time, treating coworkers, managers, and customers respectfully, and other important lessons.
Campbell went on to say that at last year’s placement, T&K Markets, “I learned how to rearrange stuff, put things in order. I learned to be on time. I woke up at 5ish and got to work at 6.” He said it’s important to “work hard, don’t be late. Always have a good attitude.” Rexrode praised Campbell’s commitment, saying, “If he tells you he’ll be there, he’ll be there.”
Sarah Wetzel, who manages at the Subway, said, “I like the job he’s done. We’re teaching him a bit. Dolly teaches him, too.” Wetzel also praised Campbell’s work ethic and said, “he has a lot of common sense.” Overall, she agreed that “I think this is a very good program to help these kids.”
Participants can range in ages from 14 – 21.