Dear Diary, Part I

April 7, 2015

Dear Diary,

Today I kicked off our Get On The Grid tour.  Basically, this means I go talk to classrooms across the state about Get On The Grid and hear what students think about jobs in energy and advanced manufacturing.  I also do a lot of praising my lucky stars that I never, ever have to go back to middle school.  Never trust anyone who didn’t have an awkward middle school phase, Diary. It’s just not natural.

My first stop was an 8th grade classroom at Armstrong Middle School in Starkville, Mississippi.  In some ways, I think middle school hasn’t changed at all.  It still smells like chicken fingers and a few too many experiments with antiperspirant.  The walls are still covered with motivational posters; usually some quote about trying your hardest with a picture of an eagle flying into a sunset. ‘Merica.

But mainly, the kids are the same.  There are athletes, girly-girls, guys in camo everything. Mostly, there are in-betweens, like me.  Not really sure of who they are or what they want to do, but all torn between making a name for themselves and blending in. And it’s my job to go in and provide a sense of occupational direction. Woof.

Last night, I sat with Hannah Rachel at The Grille in Starkville strategizing for today’s presentations.  At one point, I simply said, “I wouldn’t pay attention to me if I were your students.” Because it’s true.  Because when you’re in eighth grade, your priorities look more like:

  1. Pick out an outfit that looks good, but doesn’t look like I actually tried. Trying is not cool.
  2. Don’t trip on the way to the pencil sharpener.
  3. ……. 100. Find a job. Maybe.

This an uphill battle, y’all.

Thankfully for parents and employers across the state, we have excellent educators like Mrs. Hannah Rachel Smith who start this process early.  In fact, when asked where they typically find career information, the majority of students answered, “Mrs. Smith,” and/or a research website used in one of their classes.

But even the most invested of educators battles a negative perception of energy and manufacturing jobs, a perception that permeates even the youngest of generations.  When asked to describe the energy and manufacturing fields, the most students answered, “dangerous” and “really hard.”  When asked to estimate salaries for these jobs, most students answered $30,000.  However, none had a firm grasp on how much money it might require to raise a family; some suggested $10,000 or less, and several answered $1.5 million or more. Most disheartening, 7 out of 10 of students had already decided that they could not find a job or make enough money to support their families in Mississippi, and many planned to move as soon as possible.

So we walked through the site.  We discussed welding, refinery operations, and industrial technicians.  We watched videos and talked about the importance of showing up to work on time.  There were lots of head nods and, “Oh yeah, my cousin does that!”

Fact is, it’s going to take more than one teacher or one guest speaker or one website to change the perception of skilled trades.  Even with an army of dedicated educators across Mississippi, more help is needed. It takes a village, and repetition is key.  Get On The Grid is one tool made possible by a coalition of businesses invested in their own communities.

I have no clue if any of those kids is going to become a welder or stay in Mississippi, but I hope they do. Not only because it is a great option for them, but because we are all made better when a generation chooses invest in our neighborhoods and hometowns.  At the least, I hope they come to understand the wide range of opportunities at their fingertips.  Because skilled trades are crucial.  It’s what allows Mississippi’s students to go to school here, get a job here, and raise a healthy family here.  May we dedicate ourselves both to their futures and to all of their options for success.

Until next time, GOTG Diary.