The cockpit shook as the wheels to a Boeing 777 touched down on a lengthy stretch of concrete. After a successful flight, the roaring sounds of rubber against tarmac, wind against wings and a cheering cabin crew were enough to inspire a change of heart and mind for the young pilot. She stood up, beaming, and exited the flight simulation chamber. “I’m going to be a pilot,” she said as she shook the captain’s hand and gathered information on flight school.
She strolled through the career fair, passing other students with the same comfortably determined grin, one that denotes a newfound sense of purpose.
One of many programs deployed by Junior Achievement, the JA Inspire program gives kids the opportunity to interact with professionals of any industry, following six in-classroom lessons delivered by their teachers. At this annual career fair, company booths and interactive training and simulation stations form makeshift aisles that sprawl across the Osceola Heritage Park event center.
Throughout the day, more than 3,500 students from 14 public middle schools visit the event center, where they explore new concepts, careers and industries and learn about a day in the life of an accountant or researcher, a police officer or engineer. Organizations like the Walt Disney Company, Addition Financial (formerly Central Florida Educators Federal Credit Union), Orlando Health, BRIDG, imec, Seacoast Bank, UPS, Valencia College and the University of Central Florida convene to teach children about the path from classroom to career.
“It’s not about the degree. It’s not even about the end goal. The program focuses on the journey,” said Kathy Panter, CEO of Junior Achievement of Central Florida. “We want students to understand what an engineer does, or what an accountant does. We’re all there to help depict what these titles and degrees enable people to do. We help paint a picture for students at a critical moment in their lives, which will help them find their path.”
Hands On, Minds Opened
In the “Allegory of the Cave,” Greek philosopher Plato depicted the concept of being enslaved to a finite perspective that without education or experience, we are ignorantly bound to a life of accepting a fraction of meaning or purpose. The JA Inspire program unites education and real-world experience in a hands-on environment, offering perspective and inspiring purpose.Upon arrival, each student receives an Inspire Passport in an effort to get students to interact, engage and learn about new career paths and industries. The passport lists industries of high growth in Central Florida, including “Business and Professional Services,” “Construction” and “Technology.”
Students must get their passport stamped at each new destination or industry explored.
Panter reminisced on a time when she spoke with an excited 14-year-old at a JA Inspire event. “Did you know accountants don’t just sit at their desks all day? They go out to other businesses and help solve problems!” The young girl nearly demanded an explanation as to why she did not already know that fact.
“Children can’t dream what they’ve never seen,” Panter said. “Many students don’t know about jobs outside of what their families may tell them, and they don’t see a path for themselves unless somebody takes the time to tell them and show them.”
In the state of Florida, students can decide to drop out of high school at age 16. “Eighth and ninth grade is a critical time in a student’s path,” Panter said. “Because of that, our strategic plan has completely shifted over the last five years.”
Until 2014, 75 percent of JA students were elementary school children. The JA board of directors decided the program would have a deeper impact if they were to shift that model to focus on middle and high school students where just-in-time programs are delivered.
“The JA Inspire program has been offered to every eighth-grade student in Osceola County public schools, as well as private, charter and home schools.”
Education dictates much of an individual’s aspirations, network, opportunities and, ultimately, life experiences. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers age 25 and older were $909 in the second quarter of 2017. Full-time workers without a high school diploma had median weekly earnings of $515, compared with $718 for high school graduates with no college experience and $1,189 for those with a bachelor’s degree.
“We want to get students in Central Florida to look at higher-wage jobs and to fill the job openings for the companies that we’re building locally, bringing to town and want to bring to town in the future,” Panter said. “Ultimately, Junior Achievement is an economic development organization focused on building and encouraging tomorrow’s workforce.”
100 Years Strong
Established in 1919 at the beginning of the American Industrial Revolution, Junior Achievement was founded to teach young people moving to cities from farms about economic development from an entrepreneurial and business perspective. Today, the organization and its programs still aim to enable students and communities to drive the economy forward by equipping them with the necessary knowledge and tools.
“The overarching mission,” Panter said, “is that we are in the business of getting students independent and successful in whatever success looks like to them.”