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Columbia County’s Workforce Competition gives local students a chance to show off their career skills

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High school students from across Columbia County had a day to present their skills and potential at the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office in Appling Friday.

“My family’s all grown up as farmers,” said Jack Wurst, a freshman agricultural student from Harlem High School who volunteered to participate in the tractor driving competition. He says he would like to go into agriculture to help continue his family’s farm.

“It’s something I like to do, so why not do it?” he said.

Columbia County partnered with the sheriff’s office, the school district and the Columbia County Chamber Foundation to coordinate and host the Career, Technical and Agricultural Education Workforce Showcase Competition, in which students showcased their abilities in and knowledge of various career fields.

Allison Langley, 17, a Greenbrier High School junior, marched Army Junior ROTC cadets during a drill and ceremony competition. Staff photo by Joshua B. Good

One of the contests was the Agricultural Future Farmers of America competition, held at an outside driving course on the sheriff’s office campus grounds.

“They’ll drive the course here, point out how to operate, pre-checkup,” said Harlem High School agricultural teacher Jay Murray. “Then, they drive the course, and they get graded on that. And then they also take a written test over general knowledge on lawnmowers or tractors.”

The Workforce event was developed in 2020, when county manager Scott Johnson challenged all the county divisions to come up with an impact program. With county fleet manager Nick Hayes, who used to be an automotive instructor at Harlem High School, the county held Columbia County Auto Skills Competition.

Amy Maldonado, 15, a Harlem High School sophomore, put her agriculture class skills to the test and quickly maneuvered through the cones. Staff photo by Joshua B. Good

“We decided to do an automotive competition with the schools,” said Leanne Reece, director of the Internal Services division. Before, she notes, automotive students would have to travel as far as Atlanta to participate in regional competitions.

“There were only 21 kids there, but the vendors’ response was just amazing, because they truly are hungry for workers,” said Reece. The endeavor proved successful enough, she says, that Johnson encouraged the event to expand to all 12 of the job pathways, which range from audio visual and culinary arts to law enforcement and cosmetology.

Even the military was represented among the careers, with ROTC competition. Greenbrier High School junior Allison Langley ran a squad of junior ROTC cadets through marching drills. She said she wasn’t as prepared as she would have liked.

“I still did my best,” she said.

Evans High School sophomores Eryn Jackson, Darren Moseley and Jaelah Threat volunteered to participate in the showcase for the culinary pathway, planning to go on a trip to the state capitol with the Family, Career and Community Leaders of America technical student organization.

Jacob Dukes, 15, an Evans High School sophomore, practiced donning fire gear and says he wants to be a firefighter. Staff photo by Joshua B. Good

“We’re just learning how to handle food right,” said Jackson. “How to cook it to a certain temperature and how to properly store it and how to properly like get it out to serve it again.”

Evans High School sophomore Jacob Dukes got lessons on quickly donning firefighting gear from County Fire Department Chief Jeremy Wallen and Deputy Chief Jimmie Paschal.

Paschal showed Jacob how to step into his boots at the same time he puts on his protective balaclava hood, then throw on the Nomex jacket by throwing it over his head. Jacob shaved minutes off his time.

An undercurrent to the county partnership’s efforts is accommodating alternative routes for students who might not be interested in traditional postsecondary education.

Grovetown junior Will Davis, 16, welds a joint together during a timed competition. Staff photo by Joshua B. Good.

“I think that there’s been a realization that not everybody’s going to a four-year college,” said Hayes, who used to be an automotive instructor at Harlem High School. “And so my goal is not to go take a kid who wants to go to a four year college and push them toward another industry, but to give the kid who doesn’t want to go to a four year college and opportunity succeed, too.”

The Workforce Competition represents not only a new emphasis for potential workers excel in various trades and other fields, but opportunities for credits toward those occupations.

“We are postsecondary education,” said Jeff Rice, Training Coordinator at Plumbers & Steamfitters Local Union 150, who oversaw the welding portion of the competition “They get college credit from our apprenticeship program so when I get through our four year apprenticeship program, they’ll have 45 accredited hours toward an associate’s degree.”

Several sponsors assisted with the development of the event, from Jiffy Lube to the Evans and Grovetown Chick-Fil-A restaurants.

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“It’s for the kids,” said Toby Carr of Mac Tools, one of the sponsors, which will be offering toolboxes as competition prizes. “We need technicians, and not everybody’s cut out for college, right. It’s okay to go to a technical school and learn to trade, and you can come out in two years and go straight into the workforce and have a portion of the student debt that you’d have if you went to college.”

Like many of the sponsors who participated, Mac Tools didn’t make any money being part of the event. Carr says that it’s worth it.

“For me, and for the other tool trucks, it’s future customers,” he said. “And for a lot of these vendors here, future employees.”

As the event has been expanded, this year the showcase and the award ceremony were scheduled on separate days. The awards ceremony for the competition will occur at the Multipurpose Facility on Saturday morning. For a list of the career pathway clusters, visit https://www.gadoe.org/Curriculum-Instruction-and-Assessment/CTAE/Pages/cluster-pathway-courses.aspx.

Skyler Q. Andrews is a staff reporter covering education in Columbia County and business-related topics for The Augusta Press. Reach him at [email protected] 

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