Chris Laney was one of three Workforce Education Innovators recently recognized by Florida College Access Network at the 2019 FCAN Summit. This follow-up story highlights Chris’s work as a community leader preparing high school students for the education and career that is right for them.
As chair-elect of the Sarasota Young Professionals Group in 2013, Chris Laney knew he wanted to devise a way to positively impact college and career opportunities for students and employers in his hometown.
“I wanted to do something in education because I’d heard of the brain drain,” said Laney, who currently serves as director of education and community investment for CareerSource Suncoast.
That desire led to the creation of the State of Jobs Conference in 2013, which is spearheaded by Laney and provides students with session tracks associated with the careers that are in-demand in the community. In 2016, the conference moved from the Sarasota Chamber to CareerSource Suncoast.
The conference largely targets sophomores, with second-year high schoolers comprising about 75% of students who attend. Business leaders typically offer 15-30 minutes of information related to their fields, while giving students the opportunity to ask questions.
“It’s about investing in our future workforce,” Laney said.
The annual event has swelled from hosting about 400 students in its first year to more than 2,000 students in 2018. That latest figure includes an expansion of the conference’s reach thanks to a partnership with CareerSouce Research Coast to bring in almost 900 students to the first State of Jobs Conference East in Port St. Lucie.
As the State of Jobs Conference started to grow, Laney and CareerSource sought ways to remove potential barriers for students who wanted to attend. During the first three conferences, Sarasota County Schools covered transportation costs for its students. After the event expanded its reach to Manatee County, CareerSource Suncoast raised enough funds to cover 100% of transportation for public school students in Manatee and Sarasota using charter buses for the fourth State of Jobs Conference.
“We try to alleviate all cost to the school district and remove any reasons for the district to say no,” Laney said.
Last year, the school districts for Manatee and Sarasota covered about one-third of transportation costs.
“We paid for charter buses, but last year the (Manatee and Sarasota) districts contributed money because they saw the value in the conference,” Laney said.
CareerSource’s fundraising efforts for the State of Jobs Conference are focused on the business and higher education sectors. Laney estimates about 60-70% of sponsors come from the business community, while the rest is comprised of supporters in higher ed.
Addtionally, each State of Jobs Conference — including the upcoming State of Jobs Conference East on October 3, and the State of Jobs Conference West on October 15 — takes place on a weekday during school hours.
“As we’ve expanded, the districts have said, ‘Can we do this on a Saturday because we go on so many field trips during the year?’” Laney said. “My response has always been that this is the only opportunity for us to get such high-level leaders in one place to talk to these students.
“A lot of our leaders tell me, I don’t have time to go speak to 10 classrooms, but I can come to State of Jobs and speak to a segmented group.”
For the last several years, a key component of the State of Jobs Conference is the research collected from students regarding their perception of college and career opportunities in their respective communities. The data are compiled into an annual “State of Students Report.”
“We said, ‘We have all these students in a room for a conference…what if we just started asking them questions? What if we get their perspective on what jobs and what college is going to look like in our region?’” Laney said on FCAN’s podcast earlier this year. “That way we can go back to the stakeholders in the community and start to develop appropriate programming.”
Laney says he hopes to add an additional partner in the northern part of the state for a State of Jobs conference that incorporates data from the state’s northern counties.
“If we’re able to cover 10-12 counties in three different parts of the state, I think we’ll have a pretty good indicator of what student perception really is,” Laney said.