Summer school? Teens trade classes for factory jobs

CARROLLTON, Ga.—Breonna Daniel, a onetime high-school dropout, was smoking pot and “hanging out with the wrong crowd” last year without a hint of concern for her future.

This summer, she is among hundreds of teens working on Southwire Co.’s factory line four hours a day, earning above minimum wage and spending eight hours a day in the company’s classrooms. It is part of a novel program designed by the cable manufacturer to develop a skilled workforce and get troubled high-school students from the community back on track.

“I didn’t really care about school or the situation I was in,” says Ms. Daniel, 17 years old. The program “changed me. I’ve grown up.”

The initiative by Southwire, a closely held company with 7,500 workers, is among the latest attempts by U.S. companies to produce what the education system too often struggles to deliver: high-school graduates with adequate workplace skills. Companies across the U.S. say that without better educated workers they will lose their competitive edge in the global economy.

The U.S. high-school graduation rate hit 81% in 2012, according to the latest data available from the Education Department. That’s up from 74% in 2007, an improvement largely attributed to a reduction in teen crime and pregnancies. But American high-school students still lag behind their peers around the world in graduation rates, ranking 22nd out of 28 developed countries tracked by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

U.S. corporations have become increasingly interested in investing in education to address the problem. In 2012, for the first time ever, schools at all levels received the largest share of cash and noncash corporate donations as donors sought to expand “the talent pool available to them in the future,” according to CECP, a group of 150 chief executives promoting corporate philanthropy. Education maintained the top spot in 2013, with schools getting 21% of $6.06 billion in total corporate donations.

Southwire, based here, an hour west of Atlanta and close to the Alabama border, has a long history of offering financial support to schools and other local institutions. A few years ago it decided it wanted to play a larger role. Executives were increasingly alarmed by their difficulty finding reliable employees, a problem they attributed at least in part to an elevated high-school dropout rate.

Local school officials initially responded coolly to the company’s interest in getting more involved. They suggested it could provide more money. “We would say, ‘We’ve been trying that and it isn’t working, so we’re going to do something different,'” says Mike Wiggins, a retired Southwire executive who runs the program for troubled teens.

At a factory on the outskirts of Carrollton, about 250 teens don protective goggles each day and package electricity cables of varying lengths and diameters for sale at retail outlets like Home Depot and Lowe’s. The program pays them up to $9 an hour and offers guidance on developing positive attitudes toward work and school.

Read more at The Wall Street Journal