Advisory Council working to connect students, businesses

Secondary schools play a critical role in preparing students for careers — and with its strong business base, the city of Shelton is well positioned to equip high schoolers for the workplaces of tomorrow.

Accordingly, the Shelton High School Business Advisory Council met Dec. 11 to explore new ways to foster school-business ties.

The council is a cooperative initiative among faculty and leadership at the high school, along with students and representatives from a wide cross section of local businesses. It also works in concert with the Greater Valley Chamber of Commerce and area colleges.

Bill Purcell, the chamber’s president and CEO, described the range of experience and talent on the council as “extraordinary.”

“We have the makings here of a model to be replicated around the state,” said Purcell, adding that the superintendent of schools in Derby recently asked him for guidance on engaging that city’s business community in a similar way.

Shelton school Superintendent Dr. Chris Clouet said that school administrators, teachers and

students appreciate interaction with the business community.

“We don’t know everything,” said Clouet, emphasizing the critical importance of business-education partnerships.

Clouet also said that the high school’s course offerings are broad and robust.

“Our curriculum becomes the basis for creating a career pathway after high school or as the basis for college studies,” Clouet said.
Soft skills are critical
In a previous council meeting, several business leaders stressed the need for students to develop better “soft skills” to apply in the workforce. Such skills include strong writing and communication ability, teamwork skills and business etiquette. These are especially important for employees entering the workforce, because they can form the basis for advancement within a particular organization or industry.

William Lautenschlager, who represents Sikorsky Aircraft on the Business Advisory Council, noted that today’s job candidates are extremely well-prepared in science and math skills — but often lack those soft skills

“I recently had to tell a job candidate to be sure to send a thank-you note to the people who had interviewed him,” Lautenschlager recalled. “He had never heard of doing that.”

Modern Plastics’ Bing Carbone noted that because of that stronger emphasis on soft skills, Southern Connecticut State University now schedules a monthly “etiquette dinner” for seniors in a variety of majors.

For students, any exposure to the business world is valuable, Carbone noted — but it can also be beneficial for businesses, too. His firm recently had a team of marketing majors craft a very detailed, insightful proposal — to the delight of upper management. Any kind of business discipline can benefit from student input, he added.

“If there is something at your company that always gets put on the back burner, maybe that is something on which you can engage students and finally get something done,” Carbone said.
New ways to connect
Technology has enabled new ways for businesses, educators and students to interact as well. Business and finance teacher Pam Garrett spoke favorably about “virtual mentoring,” a technique which enables participants to interact electronically via the Internet.

Garrett is a relative newcomer to Shelton High and pioneered virtual mentoring when she taught at Brookfield High School. Though she is just getting the concept started in Shelton, the concept elicited enthusiasm among her fellow council members as well as the high school’s faculty and administrators.

She expects to duplicate the popularity it engendered among professionals and business people in Brookfield, too. People who might otherwise have been unavailable to mentor students, such as frequent business travelers, responded enthusiastically to the opportunity to connect via online web conferencing and interactive blog posts.

“It’s a great way to help students that doesn’t require uber amounts of facetime from business professionals,” said Garrett. “We all come from so many different backgrounds, and it’s important to be able to bring that varied experience to young people.”

The bottom line, Purcell said, is that mentoring works for both students and the business community.

“The Chamber was adopted by a senior marketing class at Southern Connecticut last year this semester,” said Purcell. “We saw that even the shyest students on the team were able to greatly improve their skills at interacting in a business setting. And by engaging the students you help to build their confidence.”
More to come
Next up on the council’s agenda will be a visit to the Shelton Intermediate School, where Clouet and school administration have launched an interdisciplinary “School of Innovation” that now encompasses half the student body. Through innovations such as combined disciplines and flexible scheduling, students in the academy are encourage to dream up new inventions — which recently included a “farm bot,” or robotic farm tool.

In late April or early May, the district will run a week-long college/career/citizenship program. Kathy Riddle, the district’s head of student counseling, invited those at the meeting and representatives from other workplaces to attend and make presentations on their organizations.

For their part, students are eager to take part in mentoring programs and even on-site internships through the council.

Haley Foothorop is a student member of the council. Although she’s just in her junior year, Foothorop has a clear idea of her career goals.

“I want to work in accounting or finance,” said Foothorop, who praised the rigor the curriculum at Shelton High School offers. “The soft-skills discussion by the council was important. Besides classroom experiences, these are the kinds of things students need to learn now. All in all, it’s good to know that our businesses and schools are communicating and working together.”