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The Boys & Girls Clubs of America are better known for after-school homework help and volunteer opportunities than cutting-edge professional development.
But ask the kids at some of the Boys & Girls Clubs chapters in states like 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 looking for ways to re-engage students, especially middle school students, as the pandemic eased and kids returned to programs in person. Since kids tend to love technology and hands-on learning, Taylor thought it was natural to develop programming that she uses both.
In February 2022, Indiana Boys & Girls Clubs partnered with immersive tech startup Transfr to introduce students at 10 of its clubs to new career and workforce opportunities. The collaboration coincided with a new emphasis on workforce readiness at the Indiana Department of Education. Now, Transfr’s partnership with the clubs is expanding to 21 more clubs across Indiana through a grant from the state.
“Just having the experience and exposure to it has been really good, even for the kids. Because what we’re finding out is that you have to start early.
Lana Taylor, executive director of the Indiana Alliance of the Boys & Girls Clubs
Transfr uses virtual reality to develop engaging career simulations and workforce training for industries such as manufacturing, carpentry, public safety, hospitality and automotive. In 2021, the company began working with several boys’ and girls’ clubs in Washington State and Montana to tailor that training for K-12 students.
Taylor said the program was perfect for Indiana club students because the simulations introduce them to areas they hadn’t thought of.
“Just having the experience and exposure to it has been really good, even for the kids. Because what we’re finding is you have to start early,” she said. “For middle school, high school—they’re coming into it thinking, ‘I’m going to finish school in two years. That’s what I’d like to do. This was really fun. I’d like to figure out how I can do that.’”
Related: COLUMN: Helping middle school students think about a future beyond the pandemic
Once students have completed a series of simulations, they are asked to answer questions that gauge their interest in the field. Taylor said this helps her team set up internships and apprenticeships with local businesses.
Brian Hartz, entrepreneur of Transfr’s virtual training facility, said training meets many kids where they are.
“Young people are naturally 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 trades industries for a pipeline of future job candidates, she added. This question is helping to drive a growing movement for career exploration at a young age.
The National Boys & Girls Club is also stepping up its focus on youth workforce development, Taylor said.
And in Indiana, the state education department announced in 2021 that career exploration and postsecondary readiness will be a requirement in its schools. The department will also evaluate school districts in part on their career-ready work.
Taylor said many of the clubs’ high school participants, as well as college-age AmeriCorps members who serve as staff and volunteers, are looking for nontraditional paths after graduation. VR simulations give them exposure to jobs that may not require a four-year degree.
It’s not just the older kids that Indiana clubs are hoping to expand opportunities for. According to Taylor, the middle school age group has now become one of the clubs’ priorities. During the pandemic, she said, club staff were more concerned with supporting younger children and providing opportunities for high schoolers, but there wasn’t much programming for middle schoolers.
Taylor said clubs across the state are now focusing on those students. A work-based learning program that will use Transfr’s VR headsets is designed specifically for middle school students. It offers those students the opportunity to learn about jobs and careers and become “junior staffers” of the Boys & Girls Club by providing 50 hours of service to the club.
“I’m kind of a lost generation right now. We really didn’t have many opportunities for them,” Taylor said. “So we’ve really expanded and tried to make sure we have specific programming for them.”
This story about virtual reality and job training was produced by The Hechinger report, an independent non-profit news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Subscribe to Bulletin of Hechinger.