In January 2017, the Niswonger Foundation announced CareerConnect, a workforce readiness and career exploration initiative for 10th – 12th graders. This three-year program, in partnership with Greene County schools, Greeneville City schools and local industry, is designed to provide students with the opportunity to explore career paths, develop essential employability skills, earn workforce readiness credentials, and gain real-world work experience. A pilot program was officially launched in 2016 with the selection of 100 10th graders, or “Explorers.” Twenty Explorers were chosen from each of the five high schools in Greene County: Chuckey Doak High School, Greeneville High School, North Greene High School, South Greene High School, and West Greene High School. Since that initial class, a group of 100 Explorers, twenty 9th graders from each high school, has been selected each spring. In 2020, Gabby Billiot joined the Career and Workforce Readiness team as a Program Coordinator to support CareerConnect efforts.
In 2022, the Niswonger Foundation expanded this opportunity to students in Washington and Carter counties as a pilot project. This was done in six high schools: Daniel Boone High School, David Crockett High School, Cloudland High School, Hampton High School, Happy Valley High School, and Unaka High School. With the success of the expansion pilot in 2023, CareerConnect expanded to seven new districts and 12 new schools: Johnson County High School, West Ridge High School, Sullivan East High School, Dobyns-Bennett High School, DB EXCEL, Morristown East High School, Morristown West High School, Cherokee High School, Volunteer High School, Clinch School, Hancock County High School, and Milan High School, bringing the total number of CareerConnect schools across Tennessee to 23. In July 2023, Kim Gass joined the CareerConnect program as a Regional Coordinator to assist with program operations.
The Niswonger Foundation initiated this project to guide and support students in building essential skills for future workplace success. The project focuses on high school students who need an understanding of career opportunities the most. Other than jobs held by family members, friends, or seen on TV, students are limited in their understanding of the careers available to them. Often, they have little or no support in considering personal options and identifying their unique skill sets. Students who are not viewed as “college bound” are, historically, among the least likely to receive career counseling in their school environments. CareerConnect provides an opportunity for students to have more personalized support by utilizing staff embedded in high schools to lead the program at each school.
These students are provided with simulated and real-world work experiences, as well as mentoring support. There is a focus on essential employability skills that will help ensure their successful transition to work. This program allows them to explore career options more broadly and better equip them for future job opportunities. CareerConnect uses tools as the Work Ethic Distinction, ACT WorkKeys, Credly Digital Credentialing, and many other supporting platforms.
Explorers participate in monthly meetings at their respective high schools. Through this effort, they develop these essential skills such as communication, teamwork, problem solving, and financial literacy. In between monthly meetings, students work on take-home assignments that focus on career exploration and reinforce skill development during the meetings.
The program extends beyond the regular school year as well. During the summer, participants gather at partner sites across the region for the CareerConnect Summer Combine Experience. The Summer Experience gives participants the opportunity to take field trips to post-secondary educational sites and local businesses. Explorers are able to participate in hands-on projects and demonstrations that will give them the opportunity to explore deeper into different career fields.
Explorers remain in the program throughout their high school career. During 11th grade, students continue to develop essential skills at monthly meetings and participate in the Summer Experience. In 12th grade, Explorers are eligible for internships with local industry sponsors. They also receive personalized support as they prepare for post secondary education and careers.
CareerConnect provides high-school students with the skills and opportunities to succeed in the workplace. While the project initially included 100 students per year, this pilot has been designed to adapt to other high schools in Northeast Tennessee and beyond.