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Guest Opinion: Career-focused education is essential to the sustainable future of our community

This is a guest opinion column

Students in Alabama recently returned to school, and even in the middle of the first day of classes, high school students are already pondering the big questions about what their future might hold for them. What should I do after I graduate? Am I entering the labor market directly? Is college a viable option for me?

For seniors this year, these questions are even more daunting. Their academic progress has been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, causing many to miss important times such as football games and dances, but also milestones such as career exploration and learning opportunities. planning that are essential to making informed choices for life after high school.

In my role as Woodlawn High School Farm & Internship Manager with Jones Valley Teaching Farm, I help students discover their own answers to these questions – and not too long ago I was discovering these answers for myself.

In 2011, my mother and I moved to Birmingham from Guinea, a small French-speaking country in West Africa. My freshman year was a struggle, starting high school in a new country and speaking a new language, while trying to figure out my plans for the future.

That started to change when I joined the NAF Academy of Business and Finance at Woodlawn High School. As an NAF student, I was trained by exceptional educators in a small learning community who connected my education to real-world career options.

Through NAF, I visited companies like Regions Bank and followed a financial accountant at Birmingham Waterworks. While participating in a mock interview with the local Rotary club, I met a supportive mentor who played a major role in my life. All of these experiences helped me identify and leverage my strengths, discover the kind of work I liked, and decide what I wanted to do after high school.

Additionally, my NAF experience has opened many doors for me, including the ability to give back to my community. I now guide students to explore new possibilities for their future. While they come to me to learn more about agriculture and the agriculture industry, I also connect students to key resources such as resume writing, applying to colleges, completing the FAFSA, or creating of a plan for their future. I want the next generation of leaders to have a world of opportunity ahead of them and feel ready to seize the possibilities no matter where their path takes them.

Vocational and technical education organizations like the NAF are vital to the future of our students and to our economy as a whole.

NAF students learn skills through experiences and develop professional relationships that are fundamental in any career. In the 2021-22 school year, nearly 80% of students indicated that their workplace learning experiences helped them develop skills that would be useful in a future career.

In Birmingham, the U.S. Department of Labor recently awarded a $4.2 million grant to support workplace learning, learning, and training. This is a step in the right direction, but for Alabama to remain competitive, greater long-term investments must be made.

Tennessee is bolstering its workforce with a $50 million vocational education grant program and Florida is investing $89 million in vocational technical education. Major investments like these give students more experience and connections that can lead to family jobs, create upward mobility, and help communities develop stronger economies by spurring job creation. Alabama must follow the example of our neighbors and invest in our economic future.

Starting this month, I’ll be helping another group of seniors grapple with the same big questions about what they want to be after high school. By giving them access to tools, resources and experiences, they will be more likely to succeed. Their future, and the future of our state, depends on how we can help them find the answers.

Mohamed Jalloh is the Woodlawn High School Farm and Internship Director for the Jones Valley Educational Farm.

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