NILES — Career and Technical Education Director for Niles Community Schools Carrie George said there are more available jobs in the area than many might think.

Barriers — like transportation, childcare, training and awareness — keep people from landing them.

It was the goal of NCS’s CTE Camp, which George helped run last Monday to Friday, to help incoming seventh- to ninth-grade students to begin breaking down those last two barriers.

About 30 students attended the week-long camp, where they were able to explore Niles High Schools’ CTE programs, from automotive technology to culinary arts to agriculture and natural resources.

Then, students and staff split up into two groups Friday, visiting local businesses to see what each did, what roles their employees had and what skills each role preferred.

The camp was meant to expose middle school children to technical, academic and employability skills.

“There’s so many opportunities, and I think people just don’t know about them,” George said. “It’s even been kind of eye opening for me in this position. I’ve lived in Niles my entire life, but I’ve learned a ton in the last year in this job about all the opportunities that are here.”

George said she drove by buildings every day, not knowing what went on inside. The goal of the program was to show children those opportunities and the CTE opportunities the district offers in high school.

“The kids and the teachers really liked it,” George said about the camp. “The teachers liked it because it’s a great recruitment tool. If you can reach these kids in middle schools, and they’re excited in high school about it, it really helps their programs, too. It gets the right kids in their programs.”

This was the camp’s first year, and it was funded by the Wood Foundation. The award allows George and other staff to host the summer program until 2021.

The camp comes after the Michigan Career Development Model was created in December 2018. The model gives guidance for career education in public school systems.

Under the program, kindergarten through fifth-grade students are exposed to different types of careers, George said. Sixth through eighth-grade students explore careers in more detail. High school students prepare for careers.

The model helped George and others focus the program on middle school students, George said. High school students are offered CTE programs, but middle school students are not.

“We’re trying to get a jump start of letting these kids get an idea of what kind of work is out there and to introduce them to programs they can do in high school,” she said.

Camp attendees had a chance to explore work opportunities when they toured the grounds of NCP Coatings Friday. Their guide, HR Manager Lisa Muñoz, took students from building to building, introducing them to each department of the business and those in it.

She often introduced students to employees who did not have bachelor’s degrees yet said they made good money and enjoyed their jobs. Some employees were hired out of high school and moved up to higher positions after receiving on-site training.

Many CTE careers do not require bachelor’s degrees, but certificates, associate’s degrees and other forms of specialized training.

Many employees said they graduated from NCS and offered the students of their alma mater the skills employees in their role needed to have.

Many were soft skills, like a proper work ethic. Hard skills, like work experience, came with the job, some said.

“Those are the things that get repeated every place we go,” George said. “Every business person that comes, that’s what they’re saying. Many people say, ‘We can train them on the job, but they need to be good employees first.’”

Many employees also spoke of the importance of making the most of school.

“I used to say, ‘I’ll never use algebra or geometry,’” said John Wregglesworth, who worked in the maintenance department, to the students. “I sure do now.”

While students spent the most of their hour visit in the NCP’s factory and lab buildings, they also spent time in the office building, learning about the other side of a manufacturing business.

That was where they met Sarah Ferguson. Like many of her coworkers, she did not receive a bachelor’s degree. She received an associate’s degree.

Also, like many of her coworkers, she also was able to move up at NCP. She went from being a receptionist to working in the marketing department after six months at the company.

Ferguson thought it was important that middle school students learned about different jobs and necessary skills at Niles Chemical Paint.

“Right now, it is the time of your life where you’re trying to make those decisions,” she said. “You go to high school, you try to arrange your classes to go in the right direction.”

Ferguson went through her schooling wanting to be a nurse. She even took nursing-based classes in high school to prepare.

She changed her career path later on, but she said she does not regret her decision to change paths or receive a two-year degree.

“If you change your mind, even when you’ve been in school, that’s fine, too,” she said.