Aiken Works, a program that aims for students have a future in a wide variety of career fields after they graduate, may be the key to keeping a young workforce in Aiken County, according to an employee with the school district.

"About 50% of today's workforce in this area is getting close to retiring," said Larry Millstead, Aiken Works Lead. "Who replaces that? And the 'who' is these students that are in our classrooms today."

Aiken Works was established three years ago as a county-wide collaborative effort. The goal of the program is to see students in the Aiken County Public School District graduate with both academic credentials and an employable set of skills.

While the program looks toward four STEM-related areas that are growing around Aiken County (cybersecurity, energy, health, and industrial manufacturing), it also strives to accommodate students interested in other fields, such as trade careers like welding and cosmetology.

"Not all students are going to be interested in careers that are required to have a bachelors degree or a master's degree, so the career fields are wide open," Millstead said.

The program works with employer partners throughout the county so students can job shadow, receive internships, and participate in other resume and skill-building programs.

Millstead said these programs make students more employable because it teaches soft skills, such as communicating and punctuality, in addition to resume-building. It also helps build relationships between young people who will be looking for employment soon and employers looking to hire locally.

Millstead said there is a crucial need in Aiken Works for more employers to partner with the school district.

"Sometimes I sit back and I think, if not now when?" Millstead said. "If not us, who? If it's not us doing it locally for our students, who's going to do it?"

Millstead said he knows who – employers in the upstate, the low country, and out of state, in areas that will lead young people away from Aiken County.

He thinks that, if students are able to build experience, establish relationships, and gain skills with local employers, it could fast-track them for better employment opportunities while remaining in Aiken County.

"We've got students wanting to be a part of this," Millstead said. "They're wanting to develop (skills.) And that's my goal for this year – any year. I need partners. We need employers to step up."

Another obstacle the program is challenged by is employment perception by parents. Some careers, such as manufacturing jobs, have evolved drastically in a single generation. And Aiken Works wants to challenge the perception that attending a four-year higher education institution is the only route to success.

Aiken Works has grown significantly since its inception. It's grown since Millstead joined the team in November 2018.

This school year, Aiken Works will implement a new program, Young Leaders of Aiken. It will be used in three middle schools – Aiken Intermediate, Schofield Middle and Kennedy Middle – to teach younger students about resumes and career fields, using workshops to provide a hands-on type of environment. 

Kristina Rackley is a general assignment reporter with the Aiken Standard.