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The fast track: introducing teens to non-traditional career paths.

Maybe a four-year college is not right for everyone. We have all probably worked with teens who are very talented and intelligent, but who tell us they hate school. During a hands-on STEM program or an open mic, I have seen these same teens come alive, fully engaged and loving every minute of the experience. We know not all teens have the same opportunities, and some teens may not have teachers who encourage or mentor them during the critical high school years. All teens could benefit from knowing there are many options available for their future aside from the traditional four-year college track. Charlotte Mecklenburg Library hosts an annual trade school fair at ImaginOn which exposes teens to options for careers and vocational programs that match their interests.


There are many myths about trade or vocational schools that are still common. The vocational track has been traditionally thrust at low-performing students who were thought not to be fit for college. Many school districts are now reexamining this dichotomy, however, as the demand for professionals graduating from various trade school programs is growing, as are the salaries in these fields. For example, nurses, web developers, dental hygienists, electrical engineering technicians, and paralegals all begin their careers after completing a trade school program. This gives them the advantage of entering the workforce more quickly than if they attended a four-year program and often, with less school debt to manage.

When high school students are provided with work-based learning opportunities that are relevant to their interests and offer a career pathway, dropout rates decline as engagement levels increase (Association for Career and Technical Education, http:// Many teens I have spoken with at the library tell me they are not receiving information about potential career pathways at school. A recent CareerBuilder survey found that many job seekers reported having received little to no information on potential career pathways as part of their high school education CareerBuilder ("The Shocking Truth about the Skills Gap." http://

So how can libraries help teens embark on a path towards choosing the right career? How about showing teens all the options available and introducing them to trades they may never have thought about before? Librarians can also help break down the stigma around trade schools by talking about these programs and the resulting careers in a positive light.


We noticed many of the teens visiting the library each day were no longer in school, either because they had dropped out or they had recently graduated. Many of these teens were also not working and could not articulate any specific career goals for their future. They were uninterested in the college prep programs the library offered. We wanted to find something to ignite a spark for them and help them to imagine a lucrative and successful future for themselves. From this idea, The Fast Track was born.

During the Fast Track program, ImaginOn hosts approximately fifteen different trade schools from the area. We are currently in the planning stages of the third annual The Fast Track event scheduled for March. Attendance at the event each year has been between 150 and 200. This program is intergenerational, engaging children and teens as they begin to think about their future careers, as well as parents and grandparents who may be considering going back to school or earning a certificate to advance their current skill set. Charlotte already offers a large College Fair at the Convention Center each year in March. The Fast Track occurs on a different weekend to showcase alternative options for students.


Planning for this large-scale event begins in December. We select a date, after consulting community event and school calendars. We hold the two-hour event on a Saturday, so it does not conflict with afterschool activities. We research local vocational programs and begin to contact the admissions representatives. This includes associate degree programs at the local community college as well as shorter programs that range from three months to one year, such as a massage therapy or barber school certification. We invite representatives from the College Foundation of North Carolina who share information with families about scholarships and loans, as well as staff from several local nonprofits that support teens as they set goals for workforce and educational success. We want to illustrate to teens that the library and other organizations in the community want to see them succeed.

If you live in a town that does not have many local trade school programs, consider offering a general college fair that features four-year colleges and vocational programs. The event could also include internship opportunities with local companies, so teens can learn more about careers of interest. Admission counselors are often willing to travel to college fairs, so you can look at schools in the cities near your town as well--contact them early, so they can fit this event into their schedules.

This big-impact event has a very small budget. We only spend money to buy snacks and prizes. You could also ask community partners to donate snacks or giveaway items, and therefore present this event at almost no cost to the library.


Once we have the schools committed to attend, we create an eye-catching flyer and begin sharing it with teens, their caregivers, and adults who work with teens at schools or other youth-serving organizations. This event is a favorite of several non-profits in the area that bring a large group of teens to attend. Several Career and Technical Education (CTE) teachers at the local high schools give extra credit to students who attend the event. Partnering with your local school system can help ensure attendance. Guidance counselors may be a good starting point for reaching this audience.


We ask representatives from the trade schools to arrive early, so they have plenty of time to set up. The staff from the trade schools are encouraged to bring hands-on activities that will help teens imagine what a particular career would be like. For example, the engineering department at the local community college brings 3D printers, drones, and other technology to illustrate what students will work with in the program. Schools also bring literature for teens to collect and examine after the event.

We set up the tables in a semi-circle, so attendees are sure to visit all the available options. We had fresh popcorn available and raffles to encourage attendees to stay longer and talk to more schools. We also had event-themed bags printed for teens to use to collect the materials. A Trade School Passport was handed out, so that when teens talked to a school representative, they received a stamp on their passports. Teens then turned in their completed passports to be entered into the raffle drawings for prizes like books, headphones, and theater tickets. The two-hour event flies by for the admissions representatives and attendees. Library staff walk around, encouraging teens to talk to additional schools, listening to their feedback, and offering the support of the library in helping them achieve their goals or learn more about a new career they are considering.


Staff observed student engagement during the The Fast Track event and noted that some teens who were generally unmotivated about school ended up chatting to us about something really interesting they learned from talking to one of the schools. Caregivers thanked us for offering the event and showing their child that alternative educational pathways exist for their future. Some adults were enthusiastic about the possibility of earning a new certification of their own.

We were thrilled not only with the statistics gathered from the event, but also the stories of impact we collected from attendees. One really stood out to me from this event on the second year: Mike was a regular library visitor who had attended our teen programs. When he graduated, he went to JobCorps; however, upon returning from JobCorps as a nineteen-year-old, no one wanted to hire him, because they said he did not have enough experience. At The Fast Track, Mike spoke with a professor from Central Piedmont Community College who told him about the Workplace Learning Program, which places students in companies to learn on-site. Thanks to completing this program, Mike is now employed full-time in a career that he enjoys.

A trade school fair will introduce teens to careers and opportunities they may not have known about and serves to inspire and motivate the community. Through this event, the library establishes itself as the bridge to connect the community with resources they will need to choose the best program and then excel in their classes. The Fast Track helps to break down the stigma that vocational programs are less valuable or respectable. Many careers that require a trade school certification or degree are lucrative, in high demand, and very rewarding. Maybe one of these programs would be the perfect fit for some of those highly talented teens currently attending programs at your library. ?

Amy Wyckoff worked for Charlotte Mecklenburg Library for the past six years, most recently as the Loft Manager at ImaginOn, and has also worked as a school media coordinator for Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools. Throughout her career, she has enjoyed working with teens in her community and providing them with unique educational opportunities within the library.

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Author:Wyckoff, Amy
Publication:Voice of Youth Advocates
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2017
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