The irony didn’t seem to jump out to too many other people, but I kept shaking my head as I took in the surroundings: two-dozen of the brightest Lancaster High School students touring an incredibly high-tech, highly planned construction project… that just happens to be a jail. Hearing that high school students were going to take a trip to a jail elicits visions of Scared Straight, but this wasn’t meant to be a cautionary trip, quite the opposite, actually.
The trip was arranged by Fairfield County’s Development Director, Rick Szabrak. If Brian Alexander makes his money exposing the harshness of Lancaster’s reality, then Szabrak is the opposite: the man who makes his money by directly countering the claim that Fairfield County is beyond saving. Szabrak is essentially charged with bringing business, industry, sustainable income and good jobs into the county, and he knows a large part of that effort can come from the schools.
“Businesses want to make sure there is an available workforce to meet their current and future needs,” said Szabrak. “We need to reach students in secondary education and in upper levels of high school and let them know there are great jobs in the area that aren’t your traditional office jobs, and they pay high wages.”
The quest for those high-wage jobs in Fairfield County has been a struggle since the well-documented troubles at Anchor Hocking. “Brain drain” is an issue for a lot of suburban, exurban and rural counties: high school students get educated, leave for college, and never return. While it’s easy to understand the allure of moving to a big city, more than anything it’s the lack of high-paying professional jobs that all but guarantees the best and brightest students will leave.
So what can be done? Say that it’s a lost cause? Wait for legislature to fix the problem? Doesn’t sound very appealing, does it?
While some of the industry may have left Lancaster and Fairfield County, the hard-work DIY attitude never did. When faced with the problem of fleeing jobs and students chasing them, the county rolled up its sleeves and got to work.
Lancaster High School made a leap for the future by implementing a program that prepares students for the jobs that will be available. Careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are the jobs that pay well, are unlikely to be outsourced, and, maybe most importantly, could potentially be right here in Fairfield County.
“STEM is the future for our students,” said Lancaster High School Assistant Principal Nathan Conrad, himself a LHS graduate. “Their best career options are going to demand STEM-related knowledge.”
Conrad oversaw the implementation of the Gales Pathways to STEM (GPS) program at LHS, and has watched as the program takes off during its second year.
Jeff Wells teaches in the program, and sees why focusing on STEM can help not just the students, but the community as a whole.
“As Lancaster continues to grow and expand, there will be a larger demand for engineers, doctors, accountants, and on and on,” Wells said. “If we produce students who are bound for those careers we increase the chances that these needs will eventually be filled by home-grown talent.”
“The ultimate goal of our STEM program is to develop partnerships within Fairfield County allowing our students to benefit from the support and expertise of local businesses, organizations, and individuals,” added Conrad, “and discover strategies for fostering real world problems by expanding the classroom walls beyond Lancaster High School.”
A rising tide lifts all boats. Increase the number of STEM-focused students, improve the curriculum, motivate them to stay… it’s not an unrealistic leap to see Lancaster and Fairfield County lifting itself up beyond the broken glass of last century and once again being the hub of innovation and good neighbors that the community elders wax poetically about to any willing ear. With a coached-up workforce coming back, the jobs could come back, too.
“Industrial jobs tend to be higher paying jobs,” Szabrak said as he laid out the best-case scenario for the county. “Higher wages means more disposable income. More disposable income means more money spent at our restaurants and local stores.
“This all connects to a healthier community – with additional funds to help our schools and raise the education level; a workforce that can work closer to home and not drive to a neighboring county; and more community volunteerism and pride when people both live and work in a community.”
So back to that irony. A trip to the jail for high school students used to be a glimpse into the life that drugs, crime and poverty can produce. Mess up and you could end up in here. Instead, they pointed out the homegrown workers and officers, working in essentially their own backyards on the most expensive construction project the county has ever seen. Play your cards right, kids, and you might just end up in here.