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The Boys & Girls Clubs of America are better known for after-school homework help and volunteering opportunities than for cutting-edge career development.
But ask the kids in some of the Boys & Girls Clubs chapters across states such as Indiana, Montana and Washington, and they might say they’re surrounded by high-tech tools that help them envision their future.
Lana Taylor, executive director of the Indiana Alliance of the Boys & Girls Clubs, said her staff began to look for ways to reengage students — especially middle schoolers — as the pandemic eased and kids returned to in-person programs. Since kids tend to love technology and hands-on learning, Taylor thought it was only natural to develop programming that uses both.
In February 2022, the Indiana Boys & Girls Clubs launched a partnership with immersive technology startup Transfr to introduce students in 10 of its clubs to new career and workforce opportunities. The collaboration dovetailed with a new emphasis on workforce readiness at the Indiana Department of Education. Now, the partnership between Transfr and the clubs is expanding to 21 additional clubs across Indiana thanks to a grant from the state.
“Just having the experience and the exposure to it has been really good, even for the little guys. Because what we’re finding is you need to start early.”
Lana Taylor, executive director of the Indiana Alliance of the Boys & Girls Clubs
Transfr uses virtual reality to develop immersive career and workforce training simulations for industries such as manufacturing, carpentry, public safety, hospitality and automotive. In 2021, the company started working with several Boys & Girls Clubs in Washington State and Montana to tailor that training to K-12 students.
Taylor said the program has been a great fit for the Indiana clubs’ students because the simulations introduce them to industries they hadn’t thought about.
“Just having the experience and the exposure to it has been really good, even for the little guys. Because what we’re finding is you need to start early,” she said. “For the middle school, the high school ones — they’re getting there thinking, ‘I’m going to be done with school in two years. Here’s what I’d like to do. This was really fun. I’d love to figure out how I can do this.'”
Related: COLUMN: Helping middle schoolers think about a future beyond the pandemic
Once students complete a set of simulations, they’re prompted to answer questions gauging their interest in the field. Taylor said this helps her team arrange internships and apprenticeships with local businesses.
Brian Hartz, business owner of Transfr’s virtual training facility, said the training meets a lot of kids where they are.
“Young people naturally are more comfortable with any new technology than people who are more established in their careers,” he said. There is also a huge need in many skilled trade industries for a pipeline of future job candidates, he added. That demand is helping to drive a growing movement for career exploration at younger ages.
The national Boys & Girls Club is also sharpening its focus on workforce development for young people, said Taylor.
And in Indiana, the state department of education announced in 2021 that career exploration and postsecondary readiness will be a requirement in its schools. The department will also be assessing school districts in part on their career readiness work.
Taylor said many of the clubs’ high school participants, as well as the college-aged AmeriCorps members who serve as staff and volunteers, are looking for non-traditional pathways after graduation. The virtual reality simulations give them exposure to jobs that may not require a four-year degree.
It’s not just the older kids to whom Indiana’s clubs are hoping to expand opportunities. According to Taylor, the middle school age group has now become one of the clubs’ priorities. During the pandemic, she said, club staff worried most about supporting the youngest kids and providing opportunities for high schoolers, but there wasn’t much programming for kids in the middle grades.
Taylor said that clubs across the state are now zeroing in on those students. One work-based learning program that will use Transfr’s VR headsets is designed specifically for middle schoolers. It gives those students the opportunity to learn about jobs and careers and become “junior staff members” of the Boys & Girls Club by putting in 50 hours of service to the club.
“They’re kind of the lost generation right now. We didn’t really have a lot of opportunities for them,” Taylor said. “So we’ve really expanded and tried to make sure that we have specific programming for them.”
This story about virtual reality and career education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.