WNC Construction Career Days 2024 logo

We were thrilled to have the opportunity to participate in the WNC Construction Career Days event on April 30th and May 1st, 2024, at the Smoky Mountain Event Center in Waynesville, NC. Approximately 700 high school students and CTE staff from sixteen counties and two Job Corps. centers in Western North Carolina attended this two-day event. Exhibitors offered hands-on experiences in the construction job sector that included tools and equipment from hammers and VR headsets to cranes and dump trucks. Land of Sky P20 Council’s Executive Director, Emily Nicholson, tabled the first day, and our Community Engagement and Data Management Specialist, Melissa Zenz, tabled the second day. We chatted with sophomores to seniors from all over WNC and from a variety of educational settings–including Job Corps, early colleges, and CTE programs at traditional high schools.

Post-graduation Plans: The Three Es

We modeled our display and activity for this event after a concept in Operation Polaris, the plan created by NC State Superintendent Catherine Truitt to develop a talent pipeline for a stronger North Carolina. Superintendent Truitt frames the goal of K-12 education as equipping students with all the necessary skill sets–academic, technical, and durable–to prepare them to enroll, enlist, or be employed.

In addition to chatting with students about the importance of FAFSA and informing them about FAFSA resources, we engaged students in an informal poll by asking them about their plan for after graduation. We had foam board posters on tripods for each of the three Es (Enroll, Enlist, and Employ), and we asked students to place an E sticker on the poster that matched their plan for after high school. We also provided emoji stickers and asked them to select the sticker that reflected how they felt about their postsecondary choice and to place that emoji next to their E sticker.

As students added their stickers on the poster that matched their plan to Enroll, Enlist, or be Employed, they were particularly thoughtful about choosing the emoji sticker that most closely matched their feelings about their postsecondary plans.

What Do the Results Say About Students' Plans After High School?

Of the three Es, Enroll was by far the most popular postsecondary choice, with 72 students planning to enroll in a college or university. Some students already knew which institution they would be attending, while others hadn’t yet decided. These students felt a wide range of emotions about their postsecondary plan. Most of them (43) chose smiling, affectionate, or silly emojis (such as grinning faces) to depict their feelings about enrolling in college after graduation. The next most common choice (23) was a concerned or negative emoji (such as a crying face). A handful of students (4) chose neutral or skeptical emojis (such as grimacing faces) to depict their feelings. Two students didn’t select an emoji sticker at all.

The next most common E was Employed, with 26 students planning to go directly into the workforce after graduation. Many of these students were already working and planned to keep working for the same employer. Some were earning credentials while in high school to prepare them to enter their chosen fields immediately after high school. Just like the students who were planning to enroll, this group of students who were planning to be employed also chose a diverse assortment of emoji stickers to represent their feelings about their future. Two thirds of these students (17) chose smiling, affectionate, or silly emojis (such as grinning faces). The next most common choice (6) was a concerned or negative emoji (such as a crying face). Only one of this group of students chose a neutral / skeptical emoji (a grimacing face). Two students didn’t select an emoji sticker at all.

Enlisting in the military was the least common E chosen by high school students at the Construction Career Days event, with only 9 students planning to enlist in the military after graduation. These students shared their intentions to enlist in four branches of the U.S. military: the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. This small group was also the most consistent in how they felt about their future plans, with nearly all of them (8) choosing smiling, affectionate, or silly emojis (such as grinning faces). One student selected a concerned or negative emoji (an anguished face).

The chart below shows the breakdown of the students’ choices of emoji stickers by category for of the three Es.

Horizontal bar chart that shows the distribution of emoji stickers, by category, chosen by high school students to represent how they feel about their post-secondary plans

Connection to Our 2030 Goals

In this convenience sample of 107 high school students who completed our very informal poll about their postsecondary intentions, 72 of them (67%) said they plan to enroll in college or a university after graduation. This is 10% below the overall postsecondary intentions percentage (77%) reported for all public high school students in our four-county region in the 2024 County Profiles produced by our partner myFutureNC.

These intentions have increased significantly from the 2022 County Profiles to the 2024 County Profiles. However, in our work toward our 2030 goals, we don’t track postsecondary intentions, which measure what students plan to do. Instead, we track postsecondary enrollments, which measure what students actually do. And we know that postsecondary enrollments are consistently lower than postsecondary intentions, which you can see in the chart below.

Why is there such a gap between the percentage of students who say they intend to enroll in college or a university after high school and those who actually do enroll? What barriers get in the way? What can be done to decrease this gap? These questions, and many more, are on the minds of the members of our Action Teams as they work to eliminate this gap and to increase postsecondary success in the Land of Sky region. We also incorporate the invaluable insights shared by our Student Ambassadors regarding the challenges they and their peers have faced.

Because we know that FAFA completion is a strong indicator of postsecondary enrollment, we have focused on FAFSA promotion and completion from our inception. As we wrote about last month, FAFSA completions are down 36.6% in our region compared to last year, and P20 staff and members are working closely with our partners, including student counselors, to support students with submitting and completing the FAFSA.

In addition to our formal efforts, like our Student Ambassador program, to understand the barriers students encounter on their educational journeys, informal conversations like those that we had at the Construction Career Days event are critical. Our model as a P20 Council centers students as stakeholders as we work across sectors and with a view of the pipeline from cradle to career. Student voices inform all that we do, and we will continue to incorporate their input and ideas as we work to improve educational attainment in the Land of Sky region.

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