Blog post by Whitney Harmel
Whitney Harmel is vice president of membership and development at the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, with expertise in small, large, local and international business. She is passionate about sharing the Chamber’s vision with the Maryland business community because the transformational work we do in economic development and grassroots advocacy and through the Maryland Chamber Foundation will make Maryland a stronger state for everyone.
I meet with and speak to our members on a daily basis, and over the years one challenge consistently rises to the top of the list, workforce readiness. Businesses, specifically in STEM fields and skilled trades, including electricians, HVAC, construction, and plumbing professionals, can’t find candidates to fill their positions. In 2018, the national unemployment rate was at an epic low, and businesses in a wide swath of industries were desperate to fill vacant positions. They all wanted to know how they could be part of the workforce development process.
From that pain point, the Maryland Chamber Foundation Teacher Externship Program was born. We would build a bridge between these businesses and the future workforce, by empowering educators with the most up to date industry information. By creating these opportunities for connection with teachers, we were opening up worlds of possibilities for students, many of which were living in underserved communities.
Our first year was promising, with three teachers externing with three host companies. Seeing the incredible potential of this program and regularly speaking with businesses, I asked to take over the day-to-day operation of the Teacher Externship Program in August 2019. Six months later after dozens of meetings and calls with prospective host companies and attracting a pool of 200+ interested teachers, the COVID-19 pandemic presented many unexpected challenges, to say the least. Through the pandemic, four host companies in 2020 were willing to continue forward with our vision for what this program could be. Our four teachers had incredible experiences last summer, and we began to see our vision take shape and what I hoped would happen began to happen. Our companies became truly invested; invested in their teachers, the students who represent the workforce of the future and ultimately the community.
One of our 2020 Teacher Externs, Kibwe Shelton, is a teacher at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School (Mervo) in Baltimore City and is a perfect example of the program’s success. Kibwe is a plumbing instructor, and externed with BGE. Safety is everything at BGE, and during his externship he absorbed the company culture which includes a safety briefing at the start of every meeting, whether its virtual, in person or in the field. He brought that back to his classroom, and each day one student now has the responsibility of creating and delivering a safety briefing. They deliver it at the beginning of class, and any time anyone comes to the classroom, they stop at the door and that student delivers the briefing to the newcomer. Kibwe’s students take it very seriously when they’re selected and through this one idea, Kibwe is creating a classroom culture of not just safety, but responsibility and respect, thanks to his learning at BGE. The success stories from last year include these life lessons being brought back to the classroom, and we see our teachers having these conversations with their students about specific careers and working in STEM industries and the trades.
The Teacher Externship Program began out of sheer need and has begun to transform into something much more. Yes, it is an opportunity for businesses to build relationships with educators, so that we are building that bridge to the workforce. But, the program began to evolve from “we need talent” to “how can we help lift up the next generation of talent across our state and in our underserved communities.” Equity of opportunity for our teachers and their students is top of mind.
I am not surprised to see this enhanced buy-in from our host companies, because I know these businesses and the people championing the program. I am proud to see how thoughtful our host companies are about teacher selection, and how intentional they are about providing opportunities for students. It’s been a powerful thing to shepherd and be part of.
We are embarking on our third summer of the Maryland Chamber Foundation Teacher Externship Program, and we have an incredible 25 teachers poised to extern at 13 companies. I am immensely proud of this number, and of my team for the diligence and hard work we put in for us to realize this tremendous growth. I know the program will continue to grow and evolve in ways we can’t yet predict, and I am confident as our data collection grows so will the impact of what we are doing. This year alone, thousands of Maryland students will benefit from these 25 teachers’ experiences. And that is the ultimate goal: regardless of community, every student in Maryland has the opportunity to thrive and has access to skilled, livable wage professions. Until that goal has been realized, our hard work continues.
Learn more about the 2021 Maryland Teacher Externship Program here.