I had the great fortune to be asked to speak last week at the Maine ELO Conference. For those unfamiliar with that term, Extended Learning Opportunity coordinators are school administrators who help with career pathways and exploration. When I was in school, guidance counselors used to inhabit this role, but the guidance counselor role has expanded in the last three decades, so ELO coordinators have been hired by many school districts to help students. The conference was attended by ELO coordinators and other educators from around the state.

I ran a breakout session about connecting chamber businesses to the students in the local schools. Our chamber has built a collaborative with Brunswick, Mt. Ararat and Morse high schools along with a half-dozen other workforce entities and regional partners. We’ve been meeting biweekly for 18 months now, and we’ve created two workforce programs through this collaboration. The breakout session was about helping educators make those same connections in their regions with their chambers of commerce.

I bring all of this up for two reasons, the first being that the great collaboration with the schools and partners that make up the Bath-Brunswick-Topsham Workforce Collaborative is a model program for the state and no one else has a program like this. This collaboration is trailblazing. We’re so busy just doing the work that we don’t stop to recognize that significance, but people around Maine are noticing.

Secondly, questions came up in the breakout session that signaled to me an underlying issue. The session was essentially about “How do communities make the changes needed to make a business-school collaboration like ours work”? It’s a peculiar question, because many people say they want change and new thinking (“21st-century problems require 21st-century solutions” is a common phrase). Yet, when you bring up ways to change, there is hesitancy.

That’s a huge problem for all of us.

For example, during my 15-minute presentation before a 45-minute Q&A, I told the educators about getting too hung up on the vernacular that we use when talking with businesses about internship opportunities. Technically, the internship program (as defined by the grant) is a “job-study placement with student award for completion,” but I tell the businesses “It’s a grant-funded internship.” We refer to the students who are on-site as interns. Some educators (or their bosses) struggle because the word intern has a different definition in the grant world; however, generally, it’s understood by the population, which is the key point. We use the word intern because the lay businessperson knows it means a part-time person who requires supervision, who will receive some school recognition for their efforts and, in our case, some grant-funded compensation.


Additionally, some educators mentioned pushback from other faculty about students missing class for bus tours. Other educators mentioned the same scheduling issues for internships and how that conflicts with student-athlete schedules and school-day activities.

Schools are not the only entity needing to accept change in this scenario — we all need to be a part of it. Some businesses have pushed back against our workforce programs saying, “We haven’t had interns before, so we can’t,” or “You must be 18 years old to take a tour of our business” or “Without weeks of full training, they won’t know how to do the job.” Some ELO coordinators at the conference said their chambers of commerce have said, “We don’t have a workforce program,” or “Our members don’t need that from their chamber” or simply “This is something our chamber isn’t focused on.”

Let me be clear: All of these statements have truth in them, but these are also the points where we need to be open to change. We are in the midst of creating something we’ve never had before; therefore, it stands to reason that we may need to adjust our processes to accommodate doing something we’ve never done before.

On the business side, just because you haven’t had interns before doesn’t mean you can’t figure out a program now. Having an age restriction makes sense for safety, but couldn’t you find a way, for even a small group of students who are very interested in your field, to get a tour with one of your professionals to see the work being done to further motivate them? Also, as to the full-training point, could you create a partial job-specific training for just the parts of the work the student would be shadowing or assisting with, without putting them through a multi-week program?

For my chamber brethren, you may not currently have a workforce program or have businesses who have asked you for one, but you can’t deny it is their biggest need right now. Why wouldn’t you want to participate in a program that can help your chamber members with their biggest need?

Finally, for the schools, let’s not get tied up in the vernacular and meet the businesses where they are. To be clear, I have dozens of businesses eager to meet your students, bring them on tours and to create internship opportunities. What we need from the school is support for the students to take these opportunities. That may mean a few days out of school for the tours or an adjusted schedule as they work on their internship, but please understand that this is preparing them for their futures just like the classroom work is. These programs can be extremely motivating for students, and perhaps they’ll get more engaged in geometry or biology if they have an experience where they see it being used in real-life career opportunities.

We all have a role to play in the success of the next leaders who will start companies and run our current ones. This is new for all of us, but as our collaborative is showing, if the priority is to prepare students for their careers the best way we can, then we can do great things by working together.

Cory King is executive director of the Bath-Brunswick Regional Chamber of Commerce.

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