Take me out to the ballgame, and put me to work

Program connects students with on-the-job experiences

‘It’s good. I like it,’ says Northview High sophomore Arias Everett of his first real job

It’s two hours until game time. Tonight, it’s the West Michigan Whitecaps vs. the Cedar Rapids Kernels. While players toss balls back and forth on the field, Fifth Third Ballpark employees stream in through outfield gate C.

As Van Halen’s 1984 hit “Jump” blasts over the PA, the aroma of popcorn, burgers and brats begins to fill the air. Junior Dean Lesinski sidles up to the Staffing Inc. table beneath an apple blossom tree and signs into work on a tablet. He’s earning money and getting credit at school.

“It’s a lot of fun to be able to work with people I see in the halls,” Dean said. “Plus, I’m getting (work) hours in and I don’t have to go to math class, so win-win.”

Along the concessions concourse, junior Gabbi Ortiz sets up plastic spoons and napkins at the Dippin’ Dots kiosk. Although there’s a brisk wind that has most people in jackets, “even when it’s cold people still want Dippin’ Dots,” said Gabbi, who adds that she’s getting practice talking to people. “I’m actually a very shy person.”

Whitecaps baseball games have a real Wildcat vibe this season.

The minor league West Michigan ballpark has an unprecedented 40 Northview High School students working there — and counting. This year’s hiring blitz is part of a unique partnership between the district, area employers and employment agencies, called MiGPS. The name is inspired by Global Positioning System, the satellite wayfinder many use in their vehicles.

Northview High sophomore Jim McMiller is working his first job, saving for a car. ‘I’d just be at home playing video games, probably,’ he said

Job Wayfinder

MiGPS was conceived by Northview last school year and began last fall. The program evolved from efforts over the past several years to assess students’ employability skills.

“We realized it needed to be more than that,” said high school Principal Mark Thomas. “We felt there was more we could do to put career preparation into context.”

A team of teachers, guidance counselors, administrators and business leaders developed the program, which ties together academic and career education in that students earn credit for exploring and learning about careers — and for some, even while earning money on the job.

It happens at school as well as in the community. As part of MiGPS, the high school in March launched a Career Awareness and Preparation period for the high school’s more than 1,000 students.

The grade-level advisory classes meet with the same teacher twice a month over students’ four years at the school.

CAP lessons created by the MiGPS team include exercises aimed at identifying strengths, to writing foundational statements for resumes, to researching career pathways available through MiCareerQuest, held in April.

Helmet or cup? Northview High junior Gabbi Ortiz readies the Dippin’ Dots kiosk for the game-night crowds

Today’s Job-seekers

MiGPS also tapped Matt Baxter, CEO of Competitive Wedge, to coach students on recording one-minute videos that often respond to a particular employer’s questions, or to serve as personal “elevator pitches.”

The hope is that all Northview students will record them, particularly before and after they have gotten coaching. The Holland, Michigan-based company works in a similar way with schools in Ottawa Area ISD.

“It’s an opportunity to see and track the progression in core competencies and what students are learning in career prep and readiness,” Baxter said. “Northview and OISD are at the forefront of thinking how can we use these and add value for the students. I think we’re just scratching the surface of what can be done.”

Thomas said the district recognizes that not all students need a four-year degree to be successful, “but everyone needs post-secondary training and education, and the one thing we do know is they all need jobs. So our challenge is, how do we prepare them for that world? We’re doing a disservice for those students if we don’t provide that preparation.”

Cutting Edge

The move to kick off the MiGPS this school year turned out to be timely. The state Department of Education created the Michigan Career Development Model, which requires that starting with the 2019-20 school year, schools institute programs to engage students in talent development.

“We feel like our vision puts us right on the cutting edge of that early on,” Thomas said.

One of the first partners is Staffing Inc. and its parent company, Axios HR. Staffing Inc. hires and manages the temporary staff at Fifth Third and other locations. Staffing Inc. Operations Manager Ryan Portenga said when school lets out for the summer, students will likely work at the agency’s other locations, which include entertainment venues, manufacturing and office positions.

Thomas said the district is exploring with Fox Motors potential ways to expose students to careers in that industry, and already has a partnership with the West Michigan Association of Builders and Contractors. The district is meeting with other companies representing career fields in manufacturing, health care, IT, retail and food service.

Portenga said that in a tight labor market, a number of their client companies are “pivoting in their approach to working with recent high school graduates.”

“Northview is blessed to have such great, proactive leadership within the focus of career readiness,” Portenga said. “There are a handful of folks within our organization — myself included — who have spent time within education as a teacher, coach or as an administrator. For us, connecting with young people is a passion and a cause.”

Just wait until the lines get longer: Northview junior Trey Monette takes parking fees. On his second day on the job Trey calls the work ‘relaxing’

HR Home Run

Back at the ballpark, Staffing Inc. Event Manager Emily Rolf walked a continuous circuit, the hand-held radio she carried rarely in its holster as she checked to see that employees were on time and at their assigned posts.

Student employees are rotated to different jobs to allow them to experience more than one and to determine their strengths, she said. They also are learning about the importance of getting to work on time or calling when they will be late; wearing clean, complete uniforms; finding a sub if they cannot work a scheduled shift; and interacting with the public.

Though students from several area high schools work at the ballpark, Rolf said this year’s Northview crew is the biggest concentration from any one district.

“Now that they’ve got a month under their belts, overall it’s been going pretty well,” she said of the Northview recruits, many of whom are working their first job.

Teacher Shelli Tabor said she thinks students recognize that MiGPS and CAP are helping them get better prepared for job-searching and the workplace. They “are seeing the possibilities, and enjoy the time to talk about goals and the future,” Tabor said.

See Competitive Wedge video drafts by two Northview High seniors:

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio or email Morgan.

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