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Filling the Gap

Tom VanderMolen is president of Junior Achievement of Southwest Michigan.
Junior Achievement is ‘bridge linking education and business’

Last December, a large group of high school students from across the area sat down for breakfast at Western Michigan University’s Fetzer Center. As they glanced around their tables, it’s likely that a similar thought struck the mind of each teen: “I don’t know anyone.” That was by design.

“We split the kids up so they know nobody at their table,” says Tom VanderMolen, president of Junior Achievement of Southwest Michigan. “The first message they hear is that this happens in business every day: You don’t know who you will meet or how that person may impact your future.”

To participants in the Junior Achievement Titan Challenge’s regional competition, this breakfast represents the first of many entrepreneurial experiences on this day. The Titan Challenge is a virtual contest in which students make daily decisions on capital investment, pricing, production, marketing, research and development, and charitable giving. They submit their decisions online to JA’s Titan Challenge computer system, which compiles data, provides industry reports and poses business challenges for the teams to solve. The program then ranks teams based on achievements such as profitability.

In May 2014, a Comstock High School team called HashTagSwag — which won the regional competition held at the Fetzer Center — went on to outperform seven competitors from the United States and Canada to win the national 2014 Junior Achievement Titan Challenge. Business volunteers who advised HashTagSwag included Brian Lueth, an associate at Plante Moran, an accounting and business advisory firm; Kathy Fosmoe, a real estate agent with Berkshire Hathaway Home Services; and Alison Nord, a Comstock High School business teacher. The group helped guide Comstock seniors Eric Grant, Katy Way, Jack Weir and George Webber II to their win. The team created and marketed a Holo-Generator, a fictitious all-purpose electronic device.

“Business volunteers meet with the class up to 13 times and, following the JA teaching guide, help them through the array of decisions they will have to make in the competition and one day in their own business,” VanderMolen explains.

Fosmoe participated with JA as a high school student and used the program when she taught business classes at Otsego and Portage Northern high schools. She volunteers with JA, she says, because she witnessed the program’s direct impact — from both sides of the desk.

“Students are more interested in participating and show more interest if there are hands-on activities and competition inside the classroom,” she says. “I have also seen that if one ‘works in the real world’ rather than being in school, the students seem to think the topics are more relevant than what the classroom provides.”

Since its inception in 2007, the Titan Challenge has grown to include 455 Southwest Michigan students in the program. VanderMolen attributes much of the Titan Challenge’s local success to the Western Michigan University Haworth College of Business, which works closely with Junior Achievement.

“I think our partnership with WMU’s Haworth College of Business has been key to Titan’s growth,” he says.

In addition to the breakfast, during the 2013 regional Titan Challenge held at the Fetzer Center, students toured the Haworth College of Business, listened to guest speakers and sat down for a question-and-answer session with Haworth business professors. The Fetzer Center hosted a sell-out crowd, with more than 50 businesses on site.

JA of Southwest Michigan was established in 1955. In VanderMolen’s opinion, JA is more crucial today than ever. “How often do we hear our local business leaders voice concerns over the future workforce?” VanderMolen asks. “‘We have jobs, just nobody qualified to fill them’ seems to be a growing theme. Junior Achievement serves as a bridge linking education and business.”

Recognizing that important link, the area’s business community responds with great support. According to VanderMolen, during the 2014-15 school year, 345 business volunteers had 68,482 contact hours with 12,427 students.

Local JA volunteer Brian Lueth says JA is important because it fills a gap in the education system and because topics such as entrepreneurship and personal finance have overarching impacts in our lives.

“Yet we don’t take the time to teach kids about things like business plans, credit card debt, balancing checkbooks, etc.,” Lueth says. “We have young adults that don’t understand how a mortgage works or the impact of a variable interest rate. No matter what you do in life, learning personal finance skills will have applicability.”

Besides the Titan Challenge, JA also offers after-school opportunities and brings business experts into classrooms. These professionals teach three key JA programming areas: financial literacy, work readiness and entrepreneurship.

“When you can take a volunteer from a bank into a classroom to teach kids how to manage a checking account or credit card debt, that lesson is coming from a true expert,” VanderMolen says. “The volunteer is key to the program’s success.”

The area business community also steps up with job shadowing. “When a business is interested in working with JA, we attempt to find a good fit in the education world,” VanderMolen says. He gives an example of Education for Employment students interested in art and design who spend time working on a project at LKF Marketing in Kalamazoo.

Area manufacturing companies such as Fabri-Kal, Eaton Corp., Stryker Corp. and Denso are also working with Junior Achievement of Southwest Michigan to develop ideas.

“The JA experience is unique for students because it teaches them how to own their economic success,” VanderMolen says. “This is critical to building a strong workforce and strong communities.”

Lisa Mackinder

Lisa’s work has previously appeared in various Chicken Soup for the Soul books, Animal Wellness, Dog World, Michigan Meetings and Events Magazine, MiBiz, and other publications. Though having covered a wide-range of topics, Lisa most enjoys composing people-centric pieces, as well as those featuring nature and animals. She lives in Portage with her husband, and when not at her Mac, participates in outdoor activities, including fly fishing, gardening and hiking.

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