Dec. 13, 2016 (COLUMBIA, S.C.): Last week, 44 professionals went back to high school for the morning as part of Richland County School District Two’s Carolina Alliance for Technology program. These professionals are taking part in the mentor program that seeks to provide CAT students in the district with a one-on-one mentor.

“The CAT mentor program has been a big hit with the students,” says Holly Van Zyl, Career Development Facilitator at Ridge View High School. “It gives these students an opportunity to get professional advice from someone that shares their career interest. They can ask how their mentor got where they are today and what a path to a similar occupation might look like for them.”

Richland School District Two is part of a three-district partnership that received one of the largest grants awarded in April 2014 through the Youth CareerConnect grant competition that is funded and administered by the U.S. Department of Labor. Nationally, 24 winners were selected from 275 applicants. Laurens School District 55, Laurens School District 56 and Richland Two together received nearly $6.9 million to create the Carolina Alliance for Technology (CAT) program. Four high schools – Ridge View High and Westwood High in Richland Two, Laurens High in Laurens 55 and Clinton High in Laurens 56 – participate in CAT.

CAT addresses the skills gap in high growth computer science and engineering occupations, industries that have seen an increase in H-1B visa workers due to a shortage of domestic talent in these areas. It provides funding for the four high schools to restructure instructional calendars to expand individual learning time and work with corporate partners to design project-based learning experiences modeled on real-world challenges.

Students in the program choose one of two tracks: computer science or engineering. A few ambitious students have even chosen to tackle both tracks. In addition to coursework and hands-on learning, CAT freshmen enjoy several field studies and classroom speakers throughout the year. Sophomores are paired with professional mentors and have one-on-one meetings with their mentors four times during the school y9ear. Juniors and seniors have job shadow and internship opportunities.

Currently there are 48 total mentors for the CAT program in Richland Two – short of the goal of 83, which would provide every sophomore in the program with a one-to-one mentorship experience. There is also an immediate need for job shadow and internship opportunities.

“This program is unique because it’s based on the idea that weaving the professional world into high school education will produce the talent we need in the next generation of workers,” says Mary Paige Boyce, Director of College and Career Initiatives, Richland School District Two. “It’s a simple concept, but we have a dire need for more industry professionals who can commit to exposing these students to the world of work. It can actually be life changing for these students.”

EngenuitySC serves as the employer coordinators for the program and works to pair the private sector with opportunities to connect with the District and students. “We’re always looking for professionals who are willing to take a few hours each semester to mentor a CAT student,” says Lauren Liles of EngenuitySC. “But more than that, we’re always looking to establish new partnerships between local business and this program. These students will one day be filling the talent pipeline, so the sooner we close the gap between education and business, the better.”

As the CAT program moves through its third year, more and more partnerships are needed to provide opportunities for students and to give the program sustainability once the grant monies are no more.

Current partners of the program include Apprenticeship Carolina, EngenuitySC, BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina, Bosch Rexroth Corporation, FN Manufacturing, Laurens County Government, SCANA, ZF Transmissions Gray Court, Intel, Pure Fishing, Prysmian Group, Palmetto Health Orthopedics, TPM, K2 Technology, Microburst Learning, S.C. State Chamber of Commerce, Midlands Technical College, Piedmont Technical College, Clemson University and the University of South Carolina. Through these partnerships, CAT students have access to internship and job shadowing opportunities, mentoring, professional development, field studies and more.

“I truly enjoy getting to spend some time doing meaningful work with students in Richland School District Two. I look back on my time in high school and think how valuable it would have been to have a mentor then!” says Cameron Hochrein, Service/QA manager at Swagelock South Carolina and is a CAT mentor.

If your organization is interested in partnering with the CAT program or if you want to learn more, contact Lauren Liles at lliles@engenuitysc.com.