My turn, Mandy Mills: It takes a village to close awareness gap

Published 11:24 pm Saturday, January 12, 2019

By Mandy Mills

A significant part of my job is working with community partners such as our local community college, economic development, the chamber of commerce and employers to make sure we are putting programs in place that will produce the workforce our county needs.

Viewing Rowan County from this perspective has made me grateful to hold a position that is impactful in helping students realize, just as I did, that Rowan County is a great place for them to live, work and raise their families. Although our economic development team and our county commissioners work hard to attract new industries to Rowan County, there is still a lot of work to be done. More industries increase opportunities for competitive wages for the citizens of Rowan County. However, these efforts will be in vain if perspective employers do not believe that we have the workforce to fill these jobs.

Skills gap

A skills gap exists when there are opportunities for employment, but the people who need jobs are not qualified for the jobs available. Contributing to the skills gap is an even bigger one — an awareness gap.

Our community, along with many others across nation, are not aware of the opportunities available. For the last 30 years, we have paved a single path to success — a four-year degree. Many students leave high school and go to college because they think that is what they are “supposed to do” in order to be successful in life.

As a result, only a fraction of the students who start college finish. Only half of the students who finish college obtain a job that actually requires a four-year degree. On top of that, student debt acquired to complete that degree has now grown into the trillions.

Defining success

At the Rowan-Salisbury School System, we want students to have experiences that allow them to find their passion and engage in it in order to make a living and contribute to the community and the economy. If that passion requires a four-year degree, then pursue it, but pursue it with purpose. In a recent student panel composed of RSS alumni, students recalled being urged to attend a four-year school and felt like individuals that chose another path were viewed as less successful.

Students who decide on a certificate program; two-year, technical degree or attend a community college as a transfer student in order to save money should not be considered less successful or treated as second-class citizens.

If we can change the perception that success and a four-year degree are synonymous, we will see the current skills gap shrink.

Today’s youth

How many of you have your heard the statement “kids these days are lazy and entitled?” I am begging our community to think differently.

This generation of students is very intelligent and resourceful.

They have had information at their fingertips since they were born. They ask why, not disrespectfully, but because they know there is probably a better way. When this generation wants something, they go after it with passion.

Our job as parents, educators, future employers and community members is to give them the exposure and experiences they need to figure out that passion.

I recently attended a national conference where I had the opportunity to hear Mark Perna, author of “Answering Why, Unleashing Passion, Purpose, and Performance in Younger Generations.”

Mark said, “There are two ways to look at young people today. You can look at them as a challenge to be overcome or you can look at them as a tremendous asset and resource to be unleashed in your home, in your classroom or in your place of business. And if you look at them in the second way — as an asset and a resource, they will provide unbelievable impact to what you are doing.”

How can you help?

Be involved. See our youth as the assets that they are and help us provide them with the exposure and experiences they need to discover their passion. Students need to explore their aptitudes and interests at a young age so their time in high school can be spent gaining experiences and confirming their interests.

How can you help?

• Come into our schools and talk to students about careers in your industry.

• Help educators figure out what aptitudes students might show at an early age that would predict success in your industry.

• Work with educators to develop real-life problems to solve.

• Attend a career fair.

• Be a mentor.

• Host a job-shadow student.

• Allow high school students to intern in your facilities.

The awareness gap can only be closed and the narrative can only be changed if the entire community works together.

If you are interested in partnering with us to close the gaps, please visit and complete the Potential Community Partner Survey.

Mandy Mills is director of Career and Technical Education for Rowan-Salisbury Schools. She is a Rowan County native and a product of Rowan-Salisbury Schools.