More than 700 high school seniors pack career program at FVSU

FORT VALLEY — Times are tough, with unemployment climbing past 20-year highs, but with the right preparation, education and adaptability, this year’s graduates can find jobs and build rewarding careers.

That was the tough-love message the next generation of Georgia’s work force heard Thursday morning at Fort Valley State University.

More than 700 high school seniors enrolled in the Georgia Department of Labor’s Jobs for Georgia Graduates program attended the annual career association conference to meet with college recruiters and take part in information sessions about preparing for college and job interviews.

In welcoming the students to the campus, Daniel Wims, Fort Valley State University’s executive vice president for academic affairs, warned them to be serious in their pursuit of training, whether in colleges or technical schools.

“Study hard and get prepared, or in these tough economic times you will be left behind. Everyone dreams of reaching the top. There are still many wonderful careers to pursue,” he said. “But if you are not prepared, you will not be on the inside or ascend to the top.”

Program director Nedra Wakefield said Jobs for Georgia Graduates, in its 22nd year, works with job specialists in member high schools to identify at-risk students with vocational or personal barriers. The program works with them to be sure they graduate from high school and prepare themselves for jobs or secondary education.

“We also have a 12-month placement service with the graduates to follow up with them on their efforts to get into school or find jobs,” she said. “For example, so far we have an 83 percent positive response from our 2008 class for students who have either found jobs or gone on to post-secondary education.”

The push to continue school is the strongest, with 62 percent of the 2008 class now continuing its education in college or vocational training programs, she said.

Assistant Labor Commissioner Linda T. Johnson said the Jobs for Georgia Graduates program is even more important now, considering the shaky job market.

“The students realize jobs are scarce, so they need to be focused on preparing themselves for the jobs there are,” she said.

“We try to be honest but hopeful with them. We want them to be targeted on growth areas, to learn who is hiring and what skill sets they need for those jobs and help them find that training.”

In some ways, those graduating from high school and college today may have advantages in this tight economy, Johnson said.

They are obtaining the current training that employers are looking for, in contrast to older workers who have been laid off in shrinking industries. And they are more mobile and able to move to the places jobs are being created.

“But still, new people going out into the work force today must work hard to find those employers who are hiring and to present themselves in a positive manner,” she said. “That’s what this program helps the students do, and it is what we try to do with everyone we work with at the Labor Department.”

Otha Kincy, Fort Valley State’s director of recruitment, said the poor economy has more students focusing on college.

“We had a 21 percent increase in enrollment last semester, and we are getting applications from a lot of very good students this year. They realize they need to do all they can to prepare themselves to find good jobs,” he said.

DeonSha Scott, of Decatur High School, said the program had helped him focus his thoughts about college and a career.

“I always kind of thought I should go to college, but being in this program this year helped me with ideas about where to go, how to apply, all the details of actually making it happen.”

He wants to major in criminal justice and begin his career as a police officer but eventually move into juvenile probation work.

Brianna Hill, of Mays High School in Atlanta, said she wants to be a crime scene investigator. The program, she said, helped her learn how to apply to colleges, which ones offered degrees she is interested in obtaining and how to apply for financial aid.

Neither said they were overly concerned about finding a job after school.

“I think I’ve chosen a field that will be around and not be having a lot of layoffs,” Hill said. “Now I just need to choose a school and then work hard to learn all I can and get myself ready.”

Johnson said today’s high school graduates who concentrate on training for jobs in green industry, biotech, health care and education aimed at teaching new skills will be in demand when they graduate as the economy begins to recover and the focus shifts to these expanding fields.

“People have to keep up with the changes in job demands, whether the economy is good or bad, and they need to find the training they need for those jobs,” she said. “That’s what we try to teach these students, and what we try to tell everyone looking for jobs now.”

To contact writer Chuck Thompson, call 923-6199, extension 235.