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Employers ask for help developing workforce

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Elisa Begueria, Lake Arthur Municipal Schools superintendent, and Michael Espiritu, the new president of the Roswell-Chaves County Economic Development Corp., discuss how they can connect local students with local employers. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

Local economic development leaders, employers and educators are continuing their efforts to boost career and technical education efforts in the region.

According to employers, many high-wage jobs exist in the county that high school kids never consider for a number of reasons, including that they aren’t informed about the career potential or that they think they must go to college before they can get a good job.

“If kids don’t want to go to college, it doesn’t pay to force them,” said Bud Kunkel. “So if we can grow our own, that’s a benefit to the labor force that we have in this area.”

Kunkel is president of the board of directors at Roswell-Chaves County Economic Development Corp. The group organized a meeting Tuesday at Hagerman Municipal Schools that brought together superintendents and educators from the Hagerman, Dexter and Lake Arthur school districts, Steven Starkey of Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell and several managers with Leprino Foods Co. and Krumland Auto Group.

The meeting follows efforts that began last year in conjunction with the Roswell Independent School District. Since those meetings, the district has made several efforts to work closer with local employers to develop internships and educational programs that can better meet employers’ needs.

Employers also have worked to reach students and teachers.

Leprino’s local plant manager Rob Tuttrup said that he provided a special tour of the plant for 19 high school students during the recent Piñata and Chile Cheese Festival, an opportunity to talk to them about career opportunities. Jim Collins of Krumland Auto Group said that the company is consistently working with teachers to provide work-study opportunities and is funding automotive technology program scholarships at ENMU-R, with the two top students also given upgraded technician-grade toolboxes.

Both Krumland and Leprino managers said that they have jobs for skilled workers that pay $25 to $40 an hour and include benefits, bonuses and the potential for career growth into other types of work.

One of the issues involves overcoming biases, Tuttrup said.

“One of the things that we learned when we had a bunch of the teachers who teach CTE come in was that the job at the auto dealership or the job at Leprino Foods was viewed as a second-tier option by all the teachers,” he said. “Then we started talking about that we have people who started as hourly employees — and I have a number of friends who started as hourly employees — who are now department managers and plant managers. You can build an entire career if you are capable and willing to do it.”

Other issues Tuttrup and Collins said they face are high turnover and too few applications for entry-level but skilled positions. Both can be traced, they think, to a lack of soft skills and academic skills, which they think can be learned both in the schools and on job sites.

Other Chaves County employers that work with the Roswell-Chaves County Economic Development Corp. regarding Career and Technical Education issues include plumbers and electrical contractors, construction companies and aviation maintenance and repair businesses.

Educators said that they want to provide students with ideas about careers.

Elisa Begueria, superintendent of the Lake Arthur Municipal Schools, said many of her students who don’t intend to go to college immediately after graduation work in the oilfields or the dairies and that her school focuses on trades related to those fields. But she said she wants to offer them other opportunities.

Lesa Dodd, the superintendent of Dexter Consolidated Schools, said she used to be a career and technical educator as a business and computer teacher. She said that, as she continued in public education, she noticed the shift in state priorities away from career and technical training to preparing all students for college.

But she and Heather Garner, Dexter High School principal, said that college prep doesn’t work for all students, and they want to be able to point students to future careers in other areas. Motivating students with a vision of a good future, they said, is sometimes the difference between them staying engaged with school work rather than dropping out or becoming disinterested, difficult students.

“This job may be the only reason they graduate high school,” said Garner, “because they know after they graduate, after they have that diploma in their hand, they will be marketable.”

Ricky Williams, Hagerman Municipal Schools superintendent, said his school is already training students for some current and future careers, but welcomes opportunities to connect with local employers who need workers. Transportation is often a need for students, he said, which several at the meeting said they thought was a problem that could be solved.

“We are poised to do a lot of things when we know what bridge we are going over,” Williams said. “We are losing our kids in the sixth grade, not the 12th. They need to explore. They need to know what’s out there.”

Kunkel said he thinks that students in ninth and 10th grades should be introduced to various occupations in the area. By 11th or 12th grade, those wanting to enter careers after high school graduation would benefit from apprenticeships.

The Roswell-Chaves County EDC will organize career days for students centering on specific industry sectors or help make connections between schools and industry leaders, said Michael Espiritu, the new president of the organization.

He said the important thing is to keep the focus on students, and he encouraged educators to show how academic lessons will apply to the career fields students are interested in.

School leaders and employers agreed to work together in coming months on ways to have students explore local career opportunities.

Statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics, part of the U.S. Department of Education, shows that career and technical education nationwide increased significantly from 1992 to 2013. In 1992, CTE or CTE-related courses represented 3.78% of high school credits taken by students. In 2013, they represented 11.5% of all high school credits.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.