Supporting career development in rural America

How an innovative program and the personal connection of coaching put three small-town students on the path to success.

Once upon a time, high school graduates in rural areas were virtually assured living-wage jobs with industries like manufacturing, agriculture, fishing, forestry and mining. No college degree required and no worry about where the next paycheck was coming from. Due to a rapidly changing economic landscape over the past few decades — coupled with increased automation and globalization — those days are over. For rural high schoolers, the challenge has become how to get the specific education and training required for the industries that have evolved. Or is moving to a metropolitan area their only option for career betterment?

Connecting the dots between student and employer needs

According to the U.S. Commerce Department, metropolitan areas make up just 36 percent of all US counties — slightly more than one-third of the country. Yet between 2008 and 2017, 98.5 percent of all job growth came from these metropolitan areas, along with 98.7 percent of all population growth. With fewer job prospects, high school graduates in rural counties often move away in search of work. The result is a Catch-22 where the more those entering the workforce move to larger cities, the more rural populations drop. And the more rural populations drop, the less likely companies are to set up shop and hire workers in rural areas.

Thus was the scenario in rural northern Idaho. So in 2014, the state decided to replicate elements of a successful Pathways in Technology program from New York that partnered with employers to create a talent pipeline of future employees. The goal of Idaho PTECH was to connect the dots between student and employer needs. Students from small rural towns were given the opportunity to follow a specific path to a career-ready associate’s degree in information technology, medical assisting, or airplane maintenance and composites. If those career fields sound very specific, they are — and that’s the point. The program was designed to create skilled, educated workers for these key growing employers in rural Idaho while being paid above minimum wage — sometimes significantly so. The result was a win-win for employers and future employees. 

PTECH used grant money to provide self-selected rural high school students with InsideTrack Coaches to help achieve the overall goals of the program. Using a holistic support model, coaching helped students with everything from balancing life in and outside of school to developing important noncognitive skills, such as communication, persistence, grit, teamwork, creativity, critical thinking and problem solving.  

Several of those students are now nearing the home stretch, finishing up their time in college and preparing to move on to their careers. This is a look at three of those students who worked with Coach Supervisor Hayley Kimble — one student from each of the three career tracks. 

This is Part 1 in a three-part series. Read Niki’s story here, then meet Andrew and Elsa in Part 2 and Part 3.

“I want to be a strong, independent woman.”

When Niki was a rising senior in rural Clark Fork, Idaho (population 536), she heard about a program that put students in her high school on a career path and provided college credits. “I had zero idea what I was going to do with my life,” she said, “so I signed up.” Raised by her father after her mom died when she was four, Niki loved to tinker. “I would work on cars with my dad,” she recalls. “I can do all kinds of basic auto repairs.” Seeing one of the PTECH career paths was aviation composites (now aviation maintenance), she knew this was where she belonged.

As Niki describes it, her high school career path was anything but typical — or easy. “We moved to Idaho my freshman year and I didn’t do very well. My sophomore year, I figured it out and did well. During my junior year, I wrecked my car, wore a neck brace for months and did lousy. When I was a senior, I pretty much had to make up a full year of classes from freshman and junior years.” 

As a senior, Niki also took classes at the local community college through the PTECH program. That’s where she met her coach. “Hayley would always ask me if there was anything I wanted to talk about or if there was anything bothering me. I knew it was OK to vent too. She always put me, the person, first.” 

In addition to going to community college full-time, Niki worked two jobs to cover basic living expenses. “I worked at Ross from 4:30 to 7 in the morning, went to class from 7:30 to 3:30 in the afternoon, then worked from 5 to 10 in the evening at Super 1 Foods. College was paid for, so I worked to pay rent, pay insurance, and put food on my plate. Sometimes I had to prioritize bills and the cell phone was cut off more than once.”

But for Niki, the goal — a career at the end of the journey — was the number one motivator. “There was a time when I had to get an A on a final or I would have failed the class,“ she says.

“I could hear Hayley’s voice in the back of my head telling me I can do it — and that was the push I needed. Without Hayley, things would have been hopeless and I would have given up.”

Today, Niki has completed her two year associate’s degree. She’s saving up to buy a house with her fiancé. And she’s considering additional certification that will allow her to work on jet engines in addition to the rest of the aircraft. “I’d love to work for Boeing one day,” she says with a smile.

Enrolling in the PTECH program fits perfectly with Niki’s personal philosophy.

“I want to be a strong, independent woman. That’s important to me. Getting an education is a way to be successful on your terms. You’re only human and life happens. You need to learn from that and grow.”

Working to close the opportunity gap

As the divide between rural and urban continues to widen — both in terms of job and population growth — it’s critical to give high school students a clear path to a career that provides them with a livable wage and the ability to remain in the area. By incorporating one-on-one coaching into a program’s support strategy, institutions, employers, and students all win. Students who may not have otherwise been considering college have a champion on their side — someone who helps them identify strengths and weaknesses, set goals, and develop successful time-management and academic habits — building a relationship that will motivate each student to reach their full potential. 

Through the use of coaching in the Idaho PTECH program, rural students were able to obtain the college degrees and workplace skills required for high-growth industries in their own backyard, helping to bridge the gap between education and industry. 

Find out how an innovative program and the personal connection of coaching put three small-town students on the path to success:

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