Career Camp returns: Preparing for the future today

·5 min read

Jun. 23—Talk about busy — Diana Robinson's schedule this week has her all over the map: Tuesday she spent all day in the kitchen, Wednesday was the salon, and today — well, today is all about welding.

But while it's an eclectic slate of activities, the map is pretty easy to follow. All Robinson, 14, has to do is remember her way around Crawford Tech.

The school is the location of Career Camp, the three-day exploration opportunity for county youths organized by the Crawford County K-12 Career Education Alliance. A staple of summer breaks for decades, the camp last took place in 2019 — when Crawford Tech was still called the Crawford County Career and Technical Center. Now, three years, one name change and a pandemic later, the camp is back and is introducing nearly 50 rising eighth and ninth graders enrolled to the basics of everything from diesel technology and precision machining to wiring and welding.

Robinson, a rising ninth grader at Cambridge Springs Junior-Senior High, chose the camp option that allowed her to select three areas of interest and spend a day in each of the related Crawford Tech shoprooms. When The Meadville Tribune caught up with her Wednesday afternoon, she was midway through one of the more relaxing moments of the active schedule: leaning back in a salon chair as instructor Andrew Locke performed a scalp treatment on her.

"We get to learn new things," Robinson said, explaining what made the camp experience so nice.

Cosmetology, for instance, was not something she was all that interested in prior to her day-long tour of the Crawford Tech cosmetology shop.

"I am now," said Robinson, turning away from the mirror before her.

In addition to offering kids a chance to not just imagine but to actually see themselves in specific occupations, Career Camp acts as a recruiting tool for Crawford Tech.

"We're having a lot of fun," said Locke, the instructor, from behind the chair holding Robinson "We're showing them some of the things we do in here."

It's hard to imagine a better advertisement for either the school or the camp than Locke. A 2021 Crawford Tech graduate, Locke had first come through the cosmetology shop when he was in Career Camp.

By the time he was a senior last year, he was competing in and winning a national competition for career and technical school students. Now, he's marking his second year as a stylist at the Cutting Edge salon in downtown Meadville and filling in for his former teacher, who is in Atlanta with another Crawford Tech cosmetology student competing for national honors.

But it's not just the school's cosmetologists being recruited through Career Camp. Down a flight of stairs and around a few corners, Crawford Tech instructor Jim Hillwig was leading a group of students through the creation of metal name tags to introduce the basics of precision machining. During his 25 years at the school, Hillwig has taught at nearly every Career Camp and he has seen students from nearly all of the summer programs turn up again and again in his classroom during high school.

"This is probably the greatest recruitment tool that we've ever had," Hillwig said. "The first couple of years, you're like, 'yeah, right,' but when you start to see the kids come — and they come, and they come — you say, 'yeah, this really is a good thing.'"

Nearby, 13-year-old Riley Shaw and a group of his fellow campers in the pre-engineering camp option were checking out Shaw's metal name tag, which was further along than the others. In the drafting shop the previous day, the group had helped produce plastic name tags with their names engraved by laser in fancy script. Now, the campers were able to choose any phrase they liked — not necessarily their names — for the metal tags.

On Shaw's was the phrase "Star Wars." His interest in a series known for its prominent usage of "droids" and his participation in the pre-engineering camp were no coincidences. The rising eighth grade at Meadville Area Middle School already has a good idea of what he wants to do with his life — one that he developed after hearing about it from his father.

"I want to be a robotic engineer," Shaw explained. "I've had a passion for it for a long time."

Whether students enter Career Camp with a specific passion, like Shaw, or to experiment with diverse fields, like Robinson, they get a solid dose of real-world experience, according to Eileen Mullen, who organizes the camp each year.

Mullen, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the new Crawford Tech logo, stood in front of a white board in the school's cafeteria and explained that the camp covers both the soft skills that employers value and the hard skills that often prove most enticing to students.

In addition to the camp's cellphone policy — they can be used during lunch but shouldn't be visible any other time — the board reminded students of the importance of communication, respect and safety and offered a five-step list of the keys to soft skill success: show up, the list read, every day, on time, sober and drug-free with a positive attitude.

"The hard skills, I think get you the job," Mullen said, "but it's the soft skills that keep the job."

Mike Crowley can be reached at (814) 724-6370 or by email at mcrowley@meadvilletribune.com.