Middle school is where it’s at for employers trying to attract their next generation of workers. Once a staple of high school gymnasiums and cafeterias, career fairs have increasingly moved to younger students in an effort to spur interest in their fields.

Middle school is where it’s at for employers trying to attract their next generation of workers.

Once a staple of high school gymnasiums and cafeterias, career fairs have increasingly moved to younger students in an effort to spur interest in their fields. This spring in Rockford, Ill., local construction and health care groups hosted workshops or camps for middle school students to get them thinking about life not only beyond the eighth grade but also past high school and college.

Not all 14-year-olds are ready to plan their adulthood, but that doesn’t mean they’re not thinking about what they want out of life, said Nancy Sanders, assistant dean of admissions for the Saint Anthony College of Nursing in Rockford. Some, however, don’t think about how to get there until too many years of high school have passed.

Hands-on activities

“One of the problems we’ve noticed for students is if they wait until their senior year in high school to decide they want to be a nurse, they haven’t taken the courses they need,” Sanders said. “It takes them longer in college because they’ve got to make up all the courses.”

Sanders and a team of health care professionals from OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center held a weeklong camp in June for 50 middle school students interested in learning about a range of health care fields. She said the activities were hands-on to engage the students’ imaginations.

“We kept things simple,” she said. “Sometimes the gorier we got, the better it was. With (television programs such as) ‘CSI’ and the like, some of that stuff really clicked with them. We didn’t give them a lot of detail on why they were doing what they were doing, but just enough so they knew when it was fun time and when it was serious time.”

The Northwestern Illinois Building & Construction Trades Council kept its May career day hands-on as well, said President Brad Long. Six middle schools each sent 30 students who were interested in learning more about a career in trades.

Preparing apprentices

Long said middle school is the right time to capture kids’ attention, because too often trade council members see candidates who are ill-prepared for an apprenticeship program.

“We look at high school transcripts when looking at our apprenticeship candidates. We want the best of the best, and we try to imprint that on kids,” he said. “Just because you want to be a carpenter or electrician or laborer doesn’t mean you can blow off high school.”

By eighth grade, Long said, many students already have placed themselves in one of two camps: going to college or not going to college. Students not thinking about postsecondary schooling are those most at risk of not taking advantage of their high school years.

“If they’re not thinking about college, then they’re wondering ‘Why do I give a crap about graduating high school?’ let alone getting good grades,” he said. “They think they can quit high school and pick up a hammer, and it’s a rude awakening. The education part of it, to us, is very important.”

At Rockford School District’s Academic Career Education High School, thinking about jobs is the norm. The experimental high school blends traditional classroom work with real-world workplace experiences to help students craft their school and career plans.

The school is accepting its first freshman class this fall, which meant school officials, too, were recruiting from eighth grade this year. Principal Mike Cermak said he was pleasantly surprised at the interest he got from middle school students.

He had more success, he said, talking to the kids in general terms about learning work skills than pressing them on what specific careers they wanted.

“We’re all crazy to think that you’re trying to think about your life and career when you’re a teenager,” Cermak said.

Cermak said he understands the push toward middle school for trade groups trying to recruit members but always stresses to his students there’s time to make an ultimate decision.

“As far as the push to get middle-schoolers, I think that’s people seeing high school kids graduate without workplace skills and thinking they’ve got to intervene earlier. I don’t know how much success you have. I remember when I was in grade school a guy from NASA came, and I thought it was cool to look at a heat shield from the space shuttle. But I didn’t become an astronaut.”

Reach Rockford (Ill.) Register Star staff writer Sean F. Driscoll at 815-987-1346 or sdriscoll@rrstar.com.