4-H is preparing a workforce

Ohio 4-H isn’t billed as a workforce preparation program. But in many important ways, the youth development program helps Ohio’s children and teens build the skills they’ll need once they enter the working world.

“The 4-H program is designed to develop life skills that people really do need in today’s workforce,” said Tom Archer, Ohio State University Extension’s assistant director in charge of 4-H Youth Development. “As a result, 4-H members become more independent workers, and they tend to care about others they work with.”

In 2010, 317,286 young people in Ohio ages 5 through 19 were involved in 4-H activities in urban, suburban and rural communities statewide. Whether they participate in clubs, camps, or in-school or after-school programs, 4-H members take part in hands-on, experiential learning that emphasizes “learning by doing.” Along the way, they learn leadership, citizenship and life skills that stay with them for a lifetime.

Such characteristics are becoming more recognized as essential qualities in today’s workforce. A 2006 report, “Are They Really Ready to Work?” was a collaboration of The Conference Board, Corporate Voices for Working Families, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills and the Society for Human Resource Management. The 400 employers involved in the study identified the most important skills needed to succeed in the workforce as: professionalism and a strong work ethic; oral and written communications; teamwork and collaboration; critical thinking and problem-solving.

Those are exactly the kinds of skills that 4-H helps build, Archer said, and employers recognize this. Tom Wiseman, president and chief operating officer of Ohio Valley Bank in Gallipolis, Ohio, knows well the qualities of former 4-H members on his staff — two of whom have become bank officers. He says 4-H has prepared them well for the workplace.

“They’ve learned through 4-H and their advisors and parents how to manage a project from start to finish,” Wiseman said. “That has served them well at the bank. When we give them a project, we don’t have to micromanage. They can take care of it and they have the confidence to do so.”

The bank is a strong supporter of the 4-H program, having established a 4-H scholarship in 1986. Since then, 180 young people in the seven-county area served by the bank have received a $750 a year scholarship, renewable for four years, with a total of $349,000 awarded since the program began.

The development of workforce preparation skills is strongly apparent among 4-H members who become camp counselors. In any given year, about 2,500 Ohio teens act as 4-H camp counselors, said Theresa Ferrari, youth development specialist for OSU Extension’s 4-H program. Adults who work with them have always suspected that the teens develop workforce skills as a result of their counseling experience. Now they know it’s true.

All 4-H camp counselors undergo 24 hours of training. In a 2010 pilot project, 4-H professionals made some adjustments in the counselor training program to directly address the idea that the teens were acquiring workforce preparation skills.

“We asked the 4-H professionals conducting the training to talk specifically about how certain skills being taught were also workforce skills that employers value,” Ferrari said. “Our thinking was that even though we might be able to see how beneficial the experience is for preparing teens for the workforce, if they (the teens) can’t see it, then we’re not actually doing it.”

The coordinators also adopted a performance appraisal process, including both a teen self-assessment and supervisor feedback — just like employees and employers experience on the job. A total of 247 teens from 16 counties participated. The project, supported by the Erie and Orlys Sauder Fund of the Ohio 4-H Foundation, and a similar pilot in 2009, is helping Ohio 4-H develop a modified camp counselor training curriculum for use statewide.

According to the 4-H professionals who worked with them, the teens involved in the project improved significantly before and after their training in these workforce-skill categories:

* Thinking skills, from 3.4 to 4.3 on a 5-point scale.

* Communication, from 3.0 to 3.8.

* Teamwork and leadership, from 3.4 to 4.3.

* Initiative, from 3.3 to 4.3.

* Professionalism, from 3.6 to 4.6.

The teens agreed, saying of their experience:

“It showed me that everything in the future is going to take more responsibility, and camp counseling was the first step in showing me how to be more responsible.”

“I have learned work ethic and have been put into a work-type environment. This has helped me to communicate, lead, organize, manage time, and to be a responsible and hard-working person.”

“It has taught me the skills that are important in life no matter what kind of job you get.”

Ferrari said implementing this approach to the basic counselor training program took relatively little effort and helped counselors make the connection between what they learned during training and the world of work.

“They realized that even though they weren’t getting paid, being a camp counselor was something they could put on their resume, and they could list the actual workforce skills they gained,” Ferrari said. “That’s important.”

Some 4-H programs are even more directly involved in workforce preparation. Adventure Central, a collaborative effort between Ohio 4-H and the Five Rivers MetroPark in Dayton, developed the Job Experience and Training (JET) program in 2002. JET is a six-month program that culminates in an eight-week summer work experience with the park district. Named a national 4-H “Program of Distinction” in 2009, JET is open to all Adventure Central youth ages 12 and up. Those interested complete an application and participate in an interview for jobs in youth education, nutrition, clerical, parks services, information technology or outdoor recreation.

“This year, we interviewed over 60 youths for the 22 positions we have available,” said Nate Arnett, OSU Extension educator at Adventure Central. All had been involved from an early age in the after-school and summer programs offered at Adventure Central — and it showed.

“Even our 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds interviewed so well, they would be highly competitive for just about any position they’d want to apply for,” Arnett said. “The power of the 4-H program, whether it’s tied to clubs and projects or programs like Adventure Central, is that all of the experiences prepare kids for adulthood. They learn problem-solving, working in groups, leadership — even at an early age. It’s not a switch that gets turned on at age 16 or 17. The strength comes from all that they experience in 4-H beforehand.”

The summer positions available through JET are classified as either “teen assistants,” volunteers who generally work 30 hours a week and receive gift certificates as recognition, and “teen apprentices,” who work for pay through OSU Extension. The idea is to provide an opportunity for increasing responsibility for teens involved over several years.

“The JET program really focuses on helping the youths learn what’s expected of them in the world of work,” Arnett said.

The program offers both a “Success in the Workplace” workshop in the spring, including a site walk-through and a pre-orientation, and also a large group orientation with both teens and adult supervisors in mid-June.

“By the time they begin work, they’re not overwhelmed by everything,” Arnett said.

The program involves performance appraisals and self-directed journals, which this year will take the form of a blog. In a 2008 evaluation of the JET program, teens reported the most growth in:

* Self-motivation.

* Understanding organizational systems (the organization and their place in it, as well as making suggestions to improve the organization).

* Wise use of time, and materials and other resources.

* Asking questions to clarify information.

* Listening and verbal communication skills.

* Demonstrating responsibility.

* Problem solving.

At the same time, supervisors rated teens as making the strongest gains in:

* Meeting scheduled deadlines.

* Working well with people of diverse backgrounds.

* Being a team player.

* Problem solving.

More about JET and 4-H’s workforce preparation programs is available at http://youthsuccess.osu.edu.

Sometimes, 4-H experiences lead directly to a lifelong career.

Brea Martin is the owner of Top Dog Academy and is co-owner with her mother of Top Notch Grooming, both in Bidwell, Ohio. Just 22 years old, Martin says she knew as an 8-year-old 4-H member that “This is exactly what I wanted to do with my life.”

Martin remained in 4-H through high school and took every dog project available. By the time she attended the National K-9 School for Dog Trainers in Columbus, she already knew about different dog breeds, showing dogs, dog body language — all of the basics. She graduated at the top of her class and opened Top Dog Academy at age 18.

“The 4-H projects I took really gave me a boost over others at the school,” she said.

She even credits a week-long summer 4-H program, the Companion Animal Science Leadership Academy, with introducing her to all of the career opportunities available and the K-9 School in particular.

“I was just a sophomore in high school, but I took an application and held onto it until I graduated,” she said. “If it weren’t for 4-H, I probably wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today.”

For more about Ohio’s 4-H programs, see http://www.ohio4h.org.

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