Leaders in small communities across the country are confronting a dilemma: How can they attract business and industry, and the economic prosperity that accompanies them? How can they convince members of younger generations not to leave for other cities, and take their potential with them, when it’s time for these young people to build their own careers?
In many of these same communities, business leaders are also faced with a dilemma of their own: How can they recruit and retain skilled, knowledgeable employees?
At a time when leaders in both business and education are facing unprecedented challenges, what would it take for them to find solutions?
It would take a concerted effort by people who are passionate about ensuring a brighter future for their community, a coalition of people in education and those in business. It would require a group of people with the foresight to realize that, for each to be successful, business and education must actually be interdependent. It would take an organization like Rhinelander Partners in Education (PIE).
Created to connect Rhinelander's business and educational communities, this organization is proving to be instrumental in strengthening the bonds between the two groups.
“The concept of Partners in Education isn’t new,” says Lara Reed, executive director of the Rhinelander Chamber of Commerce and president of PIE’s board of directors. “There are several successful partnerships that have been in existence for many years, including the Green Bay Business-Education Partnership, which gave our group some great models to follow.”
Reed names Sue Makris of the Rhinelander Education Foundation and PIE board member Leah Van Zile, community relations leader at Wisconsin Public Service, as key players in bringing people into the organization. Interest snowballed and, Reed says, “the school administration, business community, chamber of commerce and Grow North organizations all got behind the idea.” The group began meeting in the fall of 2008 and in 2009, they voted on bylaws and an official board.
“We originally envisioned being able to provide volunteer services to teachers, including serving as guest speakers in classrooms, providing tours of local businesses for students and, in general, keeping connected with the students and classrooms,” says PIE secretary Kim Swisher, who also serves as the community education coordinator for the School District of Rhinelander. The organization, she notes, is doing much more than anyone expected.
In addition to the functions that Swisher mentioned, PIE also hosts several events each year that focus on career exploration, leadership, and financial and business skills. Mini-Business World, for example, was held in October and offered students the chance to learn about business. Taste of the Future was held in January and offered students a chance to see what kinds of occupations are available in this area. As part of PIE’s Careers in Our Community program, local business people speak to classes about their occupations and experiences. Business tours and speakers are offered. PIE also publishes Hodag Pride, a free paper available several times a year. “The partnership unites community with education,” says board member Jenny Mork of Superior Diesel. “This gives the community an inside edge to what is happening in the schools and vice versa.”
PIE does that and more. A look at the list of names on the organization’s board of directors reveals a broad range of representatives from area business, education and industry. Serving in PIE provides these people the opportunity to collaborate on projects that give students skills and enriched learning experiences.
It also enables people in business and industry to let those in education know what they need in future workers, as board member Dan Kuzlik, outreach specialist with the University of Wisconsin-Superior, points out. “By working together, employers and educators can plan for the long-term needs of our community’s workforce.”
He notes, for example, that “PIE partnered with the area’s regional manufacturer’s network to work with Nicolet College to develop an industrial maintenance curriculum to train students who can then obtain jobs in our community’s industrial base.”
That’s an important point for anyone concerned about “brain drain,” the exodus of young people from the area.
Although the organization is only a few years old, PIE has, in fact, had quite an impact on the community already.
The organization played an important role, Kuzlik says, in convincing Rhinelander’s school board that it would be of great benefit to have a community education program. This program enables even people who don’t have kids in the Rhinelander school district to access the district’s resources.
“Our school system helps to train our future workforce, ensuring that we have an educated and qualified workforce for the future,” says Reed. “Most people look at a school system before they choose to move to a community.
People want to know that their children will receive a quality education in the community they choose to call home.” An outstanding school system, she notes, helps business and industry recruit employees. The two are linked, each benefiting from the other. “I think our impact as an organization is to keep these lines of communication open between the community and the school system, and make sure that by working together, we can all benefit and do our part to ensure a healthy community.”
“If potential employers in our community understand that businesses and educators in our community work together on workforce needs,” says Kuzlik, “they are more apt to relocate or expand their businesses in our community. That is good for area economic development and would cause our local economy to prosper.”
Reed makes a point of adding that PIE’s benefits aren’t reserved only for students in Rhinelander’s public schools. Kids in area parochial schools and home-schooled students are also welcome at PIE events.
The organization’s reception has been positive, according to Reed. “We’re seeing great traction around the events we sponsor within the schools, and more and more businesses are taking notice of the impact we are having and looking to get involved.”
“PIE has a very positive impact on students,” says Teri Phalin, PK-16 coordinator/career coach at Nicolet Area Technical College. “Due to PIE’s efforts, students are able to experience opportunities and visualize work sites as well as communicate with people in the workforce. They are also able to see the numerous types of jobs right here in the Northwoods.”
While interest in PIE has grown steadily, the organization would welcome involvement from even more businesses and individuals.
“This is not an elite club with extravagant membership dues,” says Kim Swisher. “This is a group of local business people committed to the children of the community.
“Rhinelander Partners in Education comes together on a monthly basis to discuss the ideas and challenges, and works to find resolutions whenever possible,” she continues. “As Margaret Mead said, ‘A small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.’”
Partners in Education meets the third Tuesday of each month. For more information, log on to rhinelanderpie.com.
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