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With inflation outpacing wage growth and the global economy rapidly evolving, preparing young Evanstonians for the workforce and giving them the tools they need to build a successful career are more important than ever, community leaders agreed Wednesday at a meeting of the Mayor’s Employer Advisory Council held at Evanston Township High School.
“It’s about finding opportunity for those who have sometimes been locked out of opportunity in this community, and when folks are locked out of opportunity in this community, that has all kinds of vicious consequences – for opportunity, for equity, for safety – across the board,” Mayor Daniel Biss said in his opening comments. “It’s also about lifting up the economic recovery in a moment that we really are in need of it.”
More than 60 local business owners, public school administrators and nonprofit directors discussed the city’s recent investments to improve career and technical education for Evanston’s youth. In addition to Biss, the group included former Mayor Steve Hagerty, retiring ETHS Superintendent Eric Witherspoon and incoming Superintendent Marcus Campbell.
“My message is real simple this morning,” said Witherspoon, who retires July 1. “We’re here because we have an opportunity to touch the future. … Young people need support. Young people have always needed support, but right now, we really are in a very rapidly changing economy.”
Neil Gambow, Council chair and a longtime Chicago area business executive, said that the city – along with Evanston/Skokie District 65 and ETHS District 202 – want to expose young people to nontraditional career pathways that go beyond simply getting a bachelor’s degree.
In October 2021, U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth, D-IL, visited ETHS and met with leaders in the Evanston business community to support new investments in workforce development and career training.
And in his interviews with students, parents and the school board before officially getting the job as the next superintendent, Campbell said post-high school planning is one of ETHS’s four main priorities, along with literacy, racial equity and social-emotional learning.
Biss also said collaborating across all sectors is what makes programs like the Mayor’s Council possible. He thanked city staff for their dedication at a time when “it is a hard time to be a city worker” because of the pandemic and staffing shortages.
Attendees heard from some of the people developing job-shadowing and career experiences for students. At ETHS, students can take electives in robotics, engineering, manufacturing, welding and even a course called Geometry in Construction, where ninth graders learn geometry by building a house over the course of the academic year.
Since ETHS started that class, modeled after one developed at a Colorado school, students have constructed seven different houses on vacant lots donated by the city. The result is additional affordable housing for residents, according to Career and Technical Education Department Chair Shelley Gates, who is set to retire next week after 18 years in the position.
“What we’ve been able to do in terms of increasing students’ awareness of multiple pathways to success, that is amazing to me,” Gates said. “Just the way the world is now, this is so important. This is what’s kept me going all these years, knowing that even one experience in one of your workplaces has the potential to change a student’s life, and I know that sounds really dramatic, but I’ve actually seen it happen.”
Over the last two years, ETHS Career Partnership Manager Tana Francellno helped develop the iKit Job Shadow Week, for sophomores, juniors and seniors. The students spend spring break shadowing workers in different industries. This year, 26 students were at nine different employers for the week and received a stipend from money raised by the ETHS Foundation.
Eight students were at NorthShore University HealthSystem, seven of whom are interning there this summer, according to NorthShore Manager of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Susan Plattner.
Oakton Community College Vice President for Academic Affairs Ileo Lott and Director of Workforce and Strategic Partnerships Ruben Howard also spoke Wednesday about opportunities for ETHS students at Oakton.
Oakton is part of a statewide grant program called the Workforce Equity Initiative which connects young people to jobs, Lott said. People from specified zip codes in the area can apply for a full-tuition scholarship and a $1,000 stipend to train in a specific field at Oakton.
Oakton also recently founded the Emory Williams Academy for Black Men to connect men to internships, job opportunities and networking experiences, Howard said.