PASCAGOULA – Aaliyah Jackson almost didn’t make it to her job interview at Ingalls Shipbuilding on a recent Monday morning.
The 18-year-old St. Martin High School senior was pumping gas when a faulty latch sent gasoline spraying all over her only professional dress. Panicked and shaking, she took out her phone and dialed the one person she knew would know what to do: Mrs. Marvin.
That’s her high school career coach. The one who helped her prepare for Ingalls’ first-ever high school career fair. Jackson hopes to land a job sandblasting ships.
“I don’t have a lot of professional clothes. So I texted her, having a panic attack, covered in gas, asking what I should do,” she said.
Brittini Marvin, per usual, knew what to say. She told Jackson to go home and clean up. She reminded her it would be ok, even if she missed the school bus taking students to the interviews.
After quickly washing her dress at home, Jackson made it on the bus on time to ride with her coach to the Ingalls offices. And Marvin wasn’t far during the whole process: cheering Jackson on between a written test, physical test and interview.
“I love her,” Jackson said. “I didn’t even know what a resume really was before I went to her office.”
Jackson County has one of the most thorough career coaching programs in the state that goes by the name “P3,” short for “purpose, passion, and paycheck.” The first iteration of a similar program launched about six years ago in northeast Mississippi, funded by grant money from Toyota.
The programs use career coaches hired from outside the school system — but stationed within a high school — to help students develop a post-grad plan. P3, for example, focuses on its students having one of “three Es”: enrollment (into higher education), employment, or enlistment.
Meanwhile, a statewide career coaching program has been steadily unrolling as a way to confront Mississippi’s ongoing struggles to increase the workforce participation rate and get young Mississippians into high-paying and in-demand jobs. Last session, the Legislature designated $8 million in American Sovereignty Restoration Act Funds for the statewide version of the program.
Now that funding could double. Gov. Tate Reeves’ legislative budget proposal included the recommendation to up the program’s funding to $16 million through general state funds.
The statewide program is run by the workforce development office, Accelerate Mississippi. The state had 25 coaches — including those in Jackson County — before last year’s funding. By mid-January, there will be 140 coaches, according to the workforce development office.
“We’ve been watching what’s happening in Jackson County and what had already been going on in the northeast part of the state,” said Garrett McInnis, Accelerate Mississippi’s deputy director of external affairs. “It was the right place and right time to expand the concept and now we have something that has the potential to positively impact a lot of people and make us more competitive as a state.”
The access to career coaches was vital for students like Jackson, who graduated early with a last day of school on Dec. 16. Without help to form a plan and set up a job for after graduation, Jackson worries she could have felt stuck at her current job at Taco Bell.
She is confident enough that she’d start training for a new job at Ingalls come January; she already put her two-weeks notice in at the fast-food joint.
Jackson County’s success over the last two years, with help from its local chamber of commerce and economic development office, has set a roadmap for the budding statewide program to follow. Career coaches say their advice is catered to every type of student — not just those looking for guidance for in-demand trades like at the Ingalls career fair.
“As career coaches we work with the private and public sectors,” said Amanda Stubbs, a coach at Gautier High School. “We have brought in Ingalls, Chevron, health care workers, counselors, attorneys. We take students on tours and to meet CEOs. The more our students know, the more they can grow.”
Ava McRaney, 17 and a senior at Vancleave High School, may be her class’ valedictorian but she still felt lost when it came to sorting out how to set up a path to become the first physician in her family. She wound up making an appointment with the school’s career coach, Kim Wiley.
“I don’t know if I would have been applied to colleges already if it wasn’t for her,” McRaney said.
Wiley set up for McRaney to talk to a medical student about exactly what steps to take during undergraduate college — even carving out what time of year to study for the MCATs — in order to make her dreams a reality.
“She walked away feeling confident, knowing this is exactly what I need to do,” Wiley said. “She has a plan in place and knows how to move forward.”
Through the program’s connections to the community, McRaney was able to meet Singing River hospital’s CEO and shadow surgeons in November.
“I loved every second of the surgeries and I couldn’t take my eyes off what was happening,” McRaney said. “I got to be in the actual operating room. It was just an awesome experience and if I didn’t have that, I’d probably still feel unsure of everything.”
McRaney already received an acceptance letter from the University of Mississippi. She hopes to one day be an orthopedic surgeon.
Valerie Jerde, 18 and an early-graduate senior at Pascagoula High School, was at Ingalls’ recent job fair applying to work as a joiner, or a ship’s craftsman. Jerde recently found out she is pregnant. She wants a well-paying career to provide for her new family.
“I could see myself growing at Ingalls,” she said. “But I have always been taught not to keep my eggs in one basket.”
That’s why she’s grateful for the strong connection she’s built with career coach Shunda Williams. Jerde says she knows the coach will be there if she needs career or life advice even when she’s no longer a student.
“She’s a role model,” Jerde said.
Unlike high school counselors, the career coaches salaries aren’t paid by the school district. They can’t get called in to proctor a test or substitute teach a class. Their schedule is fully dedicated to helping students plan career paths.
The American Schools Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250 students to one counselor. In reality, the national average for that ratio is more like 415-to-1. The career coaches add to a student’s team to ensure fewer are leaving Mississippi high schools without a job or pathway to a job in place.
The coaches say they’re often intervening to help break cycles of poverty, whether that means buying interview clothes for a student who cannot afford their own or helping a family fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (commonly called FAFSA) so a student can enroll in community college.
McInnis with Accelerate Mississippi said by January, 51 of Mississippi’s 82 counties will have career coaches in their schools.
“It’s not nearly enough,” he said. “We need more.