More than 800 eighth-grade students from four local school systems learned more about career opportunities in the Paducah area Wednesday during the WKY LAUNCH Experience, a new business/education initiative by the Paducah Area Chamber of Commerce.
The expo was fashioned after a similar event the Bowling Green Area Chamber of Commerce has put on the past two years called SCK Launch (South Central Kentucky Learning About Unique and New Careers Here).
Students from McCracken County, Paducah Independent, St. Mary and Community Christian Academy schools rotated through career stations set up by more than 40 businesses and educational institutions at the Schroeder Expo Center.
"Workforce development is critical in our area right now, and we want to get students exposed to the careers that will be hiring them in the next couple of years," said Sandra Wilson, Paducah chamber president. "It was identified that eighth grade was the right age group for us to target because that's when they are beginning to make decisions about the curriculum they will pursue in high school."
Wilson said she hoped the expo served as an opportunity for students to see different opportunities available to them, especially ones in their own backyard.
"Ultimately, we want them to stay here," she said. "We want them to get their education and then find their jobs here in the area."
Local career opportunities including advanced manufacturing; professional services; construction/trades; environmental, engineering and remediation; health care; hospitality and logistics/transportation were all showcased at the career expo.
Teresa Grubbs, eighth-grade teacher at Heath Middle School, said the career expo was a great opportunity both for students who are college/university bound and those who have not yet shown an interest in pursuing higher education after graduation.
"They are getting to talk to people about what kind of jobs they can have in different industries, what is required to get that job, whether that job requires certification," Grubbs said.
She said several careers featured at the expo only require a high school diploma or have an age requirement of 18 years old.
"It's really giving them a lot more opportunities that I don't think we've exposed them to," she said. "As educators, I think we tend to push students toward a university path and post-secondary education. But through these kind of efforts, kids are finding out they can stay close to home, get a certification, get a two-year associate degree or go straight to work."
Grubbs said several of her students are already at work with hands-on projects at school that will allow them to pursue a trade a lot sooner than their senior year of high school.
"We're starting to get them ready to go into the work force faster," she said. "The fact that the Chamber of Commerce had this vision for these kids and put this together is just awesome. It really does take a village to raise a child."
While her students seemed uncertain about what to expect from the career expo at first, Grubbs said they quickly warmed up to it.
Braeden Blouin, an eighth grader at Heath Middle School, said his favorite station at the career expo allowed him to apply compressions to a mannequin.
"They explained the steps that someone would have to go through to clear out someone's throat to provide oxygen to them, which was interesting," Blouin said.
While his dream is to one day become an author, Blouin said his eyes were opened to a lot of different possibilities at Wednesday's career expo.
"I'm meeting a lot of different people who have come from a lot of different places and done a lot of different things," Blouin said. "It's interesting that all of these jobs have gathered into one place to teach children."