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CCEDC Dalhoff

Gene Dalhoff, vice president for talent and partnership with the Madison Region Economic Partnership (MadREP) urges the 100-plus attendees at Wednesday's Columbia County Economic Development Corporation banquet to help their businesses connect with local high school students, in the hope that the students either stay in the area, or come back after their education, to live and work during their adult lives.

COLUMBUS — For all their talk about “looking forward to seeing this town in my rear-view mirror,” many small-town high school students truly want to come home to live, work and raise their families.

With the help of a computer program and add-on available in most Columbia County high schools, maybe they can.

Gene Dalhoff, vice president for talent and education for the Madison Region Economic Partnership (MadREP), told more than 100 attendees at Wednesday’s Columbia County Economic Development Corporation awards banquet at Club 60 near Columbus that including their businesses in a database accessible to career-exploring teens is a sound investment in the future — not only of the teen, but also of the businesses.

“If we want small towns to sustain and thrive,” Dalhoff said, “we have to connect kids with local businesses, while they’re still in high school.”

That’s where Inspire comes in.

Inspire Madison Region is an add-on to CareerCruising.com, a computer program that’s already in place in the guidance offices of many high schools.

Career Cruising offers students information on various kinds of careers — what kind of education is required, what a typical workday is like, what an employee can expect in the way of compensation.

“It helps students to identify whether this (kind of job) is going to be a good fit for them,” Dalhoff said.

Inspire takes the process one step further, by connecting students with local companies that offer the kinds of jobs in which they might be interested.

This is the system’s second year, and most Columbia County high schools are either already on it or are preparing to go live.

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MadREP’s service region includes Dane County and the seven counties that surround it, including Columbia County.

By the end of this year, Dalhoff said, he hopes that there could be as many as 50 schools in the region using Inspire with Career Cruising.

Ideally, Dalhoff said, students will be able to find a company within about 20 minutes of their home that not only offers the kinds of jobs they want, but also offers opportunities to experience those jobs, through programs such as apprenticeships, internships and job-shadowing.

It also includes “career coaches” — professionals in particular fields, who can offer advice on how to prepare for and succeed in a job.

Dalhoff said both the student and the career coach are known to each other by first name only, and they communicate through Inspire, not through direct email. That, he said, is for the protection of the students — as is the pre-screening process that would-be career coaches have to undergo before they’re allowed to participate on Inspire.

The computer programs don’t take the place of a school district’s guidance counselors or school-to-work coordinators. In fact, these people are needed to provide the students with guidance in using the program, and to ensure that no student undertakes a job-shadowing or internship opportunity without first being adequately prepared.

What is most needed now, Dalhoff said, is more participation by Columbia County businesses.

Dalhoff said business owners should not feel that they have to provide large numbers of ways to connect with students. They can start with one or two — for example, job-shadowing, or making employees available to speak to students at schools — and see how those work out before branching out into other activities.

“This is your opportunity,” he said, “to connect with students that are in your communities, or in your surrounding communities. Kids are looking for opportunities. Better to find them in Columbia County.”

Follow Lyn Jerde on Twitter @LynJerde