Entering 12th Grade at Gentry High School in Benton County, Arkansas, Camden Wright says he didn’t think – or know – much about what career he wanted to pursue after graduation.
“Well, honestly, I just figured, 'I'll figure something out eventually,'” says Camden. “Then a couple of months into senior year, I thought, 'Well, I don't really know what I want to do.' I didn't have any plan whatsoever.”
Camden was far from alone in his senior-year uncertainty. National surveys have shown most high school graduates leave school feeling unsure or unprepared for college or careers.
But the challenge of identifying potential career paths is often more pronounced in underserved rural areas where schools have more limited resources and access to career counseling.
Students also have fewer opportunities for industry exposure in small towns, which are critical for building interest and professional networks.
Enter H.I.R.E.D., a career education program designed to help students in rural Northwest Arkansas school districts identify their passion, gain real-world work experience and then launch careers.
The program is a partnership between the Arkansas Public School Resource Center, several small school districts, regional business leaders and post-secondary educators.
The Walton Family Foundation supports H.I.R.E.D as part of its work in Northwest Arkansas to help build purposeful career pathways for the region’s youth.
Actively listening to the communities we serve through initiatives like H.I.R.E.D drives the foundation’s work. By learning from the lived experiences of students, we can help school systems create opportunities for youth to prepare them for success after high school.
“There’s a significant need. In many of these small rural schools, students often have little experience with and exposure to careers outside of what their parents or family members do. The students don’t know what they don’t know,” says Jerrie Price, the project coordinator for H.I.R.E.D.
“There’s so much opportunity in Northwest Arkansas – you can literally do almost anything as a career. We have wide-open possibilities but too many students have limited knowledge of what their future can look like.”
The program aims to alter that dynamic with a multi-pronged approach to helping students identify the post-high school path, whether it be college or career, and prepare them for that path during high school. H.I.R.E.D., which stands for Helping Individuals Reach Employment Dreams, has placed career coaches at seven schools in six school districts.
Students begin their journey of discovery with online career seminars featuring speakers from almost two dozen professions and trades. Career coaches use surveys and 1:1 counseling to help students identify their interests based on 16 career clusters, then work with them to develop pathways to those goals.
That includes arranging college visits, supporting students during the college application process and providing instruction on how to write a resume and prepare for job interviews.
“We feel like college is a pathway and not the end goal. The end goal is definitely the career.”
The program focuses heavily on securing student apprenticeships and internships through Northwest Arkansas. Jerrie works closely with the Northwest Arkansas Council to identify a diverse group of employers to train and mentor students who want to enter the workforce directly out of high school.
Students have supplemented their academic program with apprenticeships in auto-body repair, plumbing, electrical and HVAC. H.I.R.E.D.’s workforce partners also include law firms, veterinary hospitals, museums, cultural institutions, banks, health care facilities and engineering firms, among others.
These work-based learning opportunities break down traditional walls between the classroom and the community, and they allow students to gain real-world skills and professional networks in fields that may be new to them. H.I.R.E.D prioritized industry sectors with high levels of labor need.
The program also offers teachers “externships” – placing educators in workplaces to learn about employment opportunities and better prepare them to advise their students.
“The boots-on-the-ground work really revolves around getting kids experiences,” says Jerrie.
“We definitely want more kids going to college. But gone are the days that we preach college, college, college, college. And the reason for that is because some of the highest paying jobs in Northwest Arkansas can be attained by starting as an apprentice.”
That’s the pathway that Camden Wright chose. Camden knew he wanted to pursue a career in the trades, rather than go to college. But he wasn’t sure how to find the best fit.
Working with his career coach, Julie Kelly, Camden explored opportunities in a number of different trades before accepting a pre-apprenticeship with Kimbel Mechanical Systems as an HVAC installer.
Julie went above and beyond to help, Camden says. She prepped him for his job interview – and drove him to the meeting. She also drove him to his physical exam and required drug test.
“The thing I love about the H.I.R.E.D. program is that, as career coaches, we have the flexibility to provide that extra support to the students who need it,” Julie says. “They need to be connected to employers. They need to be connected to short-term training options.”
Once hired at Kimbel, Camden worked from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. then spent the rest of his day in school. After graduating in the spring of 2023, he went to work full-time with the company. His training has continued and he’s already earned a pay raise.
“Camden is a success story because he was hungry. He's a hard worker,” Julie says. “He has very high hopes and dreams. He saw an opportunity in front of him. He was willing to do hard things and trust the people who were supporting him.”
Now, less than a year since graduation, Camden is working on site installing HVAC systems at new home construction sites. He has opened a 401k retirement plan. Within a few years, he hopes to be earning a six-figure salary and be a supervisor.
“The impact H.I.R.E.D has had on me has been amazing. It's definitely changed my life,” Camden says. “It put me where I am now. I have a legitimate career. I'm not flipping patties. I'm on the path to be the most successful I can be.”
His advice to other students in his position: talk to your career coach. And explore all of your post-high school options.
“I just figured I'd go to work after high school, make enough money for the week, and not really have much left over,” he says. “Since I've got such a good job I have enough money to be able to put into a 401K. I didn't even know what a 401K was!"
The H.I.R.E.D. program is “a great opportunity,” he says. “Don't look past it.”