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On the Road to Success: How Vocational Programs Offer An Alternate Route
On the road map to a successful career, earning a college degree has always been known as the best way to reach that destination. But in today’s ever-shifting labor market, as new industries develop and employers reconsider their hiring practices, a traditional four-year degree is not the only route.
A college degree certainly gives young applicants a leg up, but for some young people at Mercy Home for Boys & Girls who are entering or exploring the workforce, college isn’t the best option. If that’s the case, our young people have access to a variety of vocational programs, internships, trainings, and certificate programs that can put them on the path to success.
Katelyn Dollard, Director of Post Secondary Options at Mercy Home, says the foundations of her department revolve around the validation of all academic and vocational options, whether it’s a trade-certificate program, a two-year school, or a four-year university.
“Based on their skill level, based on their interests, their motivation – even their own developmental maturity – some of our young people aren’t ready for college,” she said. “But there are all these other options that can give them short-term success, which can plant the seeds for long-term success, or even a career.”
Vocational programs within the culinary arts are prevalent in Chicago, and Mercy Home is grateful for our partnerships with various organizations such as Inspiration Kitchen, Blue Sky Bakery, the Kennedy King School of Culinary Arts, and Silver Fork hosted by the Center on Halstead. These job readiness programs train students on basic kitchen skills and food preparation that provide connections for internships and job placement as sous chefs or line cooks.
The field of information technology (IT) is another popular option for our tech-savvy young people. Mercy Home partners with Year Up, a workforce program that offers trainings in network security, coding, IT support, and software and hardware sales and maintenance.
Dollard recognizes that, while many of these jobs are not long-term careers, they do offer something just a valuable: short-term stepping stones that provide valuable life skills and can lead to bigger and better things.
“Even though these short-term jobs may not lead to these great careers, they’ve really helped our guys and girls improve work ethic, attendance, punctuality, interacting with supervisors, coworkers, and on-the-job stuff,” she said.
The advantage of these programs is that they’re not limited to a classroom. From the beginning, they’re very hands-on. For example, at Inspiration Kitchen during the training period, there are times when students are in the kitchen, times when they’re studying the material, and times when they’re shadowing a chef.
“School in general sometimes can feel like a place of failure for our kids, if they struggled academically,” Dollard said. “Instead, these vocational programs and the jobs they lead to can be places where they can thrive and feel motivated to earn money.”
Dollard says it’s important to destigmatize post-secondary options as a less-than alternative to college.
These vocational programs and the jobs they lead to can be places where they can thrive and feel motivated to earn money.
“You’re still worthy, you’re still valid if you choose this route,” she said. “I tell our young people, ‘maybe it’s not college now, but if you still want that, it’s college later. But what are you doing in the interim? You can do this really great thing that might be what actually makes you way happier and ultimately leads you to what’s going to be a more sustainable, long-term career.’ “
As Mercy Home’s post-secondary options expand, Dollard says her department is exploring the manufacturing industry. Starting pay for some of these licensed, credential-based jobs are well over twice the minimum wage. Workers who continue to add credentials get bumped into higher pay grades and have the potential to earn $40 an hour.
“We’ve met with workforce agencies like Jane Addams Resource Center and Manufacturing Renaissance and they say that manufacturing companies can’t fill the seats fast enough,” said. Dollard.
The medical sector also offers a promising field for post-secondary options for Mercy Home’s young people in medical technician roles.
“For a youth who wants to be in the healthcare industry, they could get in now and eventually go on to college and medical school,” Dollard said. “But right now they could work as a radiology technician or a certified nurse assistant. We actually have a girl who’s currently in a phlebotomy tech program.”
When talking about career-field options, Dollard encourages young people to think about an industry that interests them and consider all the roles and moving parts within that industry.
“Say I want to work in the sports industry,” she said. “Well, I’m not going to be on the court, but maybe I can work security at the United Center. I could feel involved and connected. Or I could work in guest relations or ticket sales. Then I go back to school and study data analysis. These are the scenarios I try to impress upon our youth.”
The key to broadening our kids’ horizons is exposure to new perspectives and industries where they can experience a career field and envision a future filled with their own self-worth. Mercy Home’s Summer Career Institute fulfills this initiative by offering workplace field trips where our young people can explore various professions. Last summer, our kids visited a law firm, a judge’s chambers, a tech company, a food and beverage incubator, production facilities, and a sports arena.
Dollard says Mercy Home’s post-secondary options team excels at assessing the strengths of our young people to create an individualized plan that sets them up for success.
“I think where we’re going to see more success is when they make that next step,” she said. “When they finish these programs, they might have a typical first-job experience. But they already have this leg up in other ways to then be able to move forward.”