By Kaci Woodrome
“Was this what you thought you were going to do with your life?”
That’s the most important question posed to various employees from across Harris County during Precinct 4’s “Faces of Harris County” events, mostly because the answer is “no” for so many, although they are happy and fulfilled in their line of work now.
Connecting with youth and working with nonprofits has been one of Landon Reed’s passions for the past 15 years. When Reed, Precinct 4’s assistant director of community outreach, had the opportunity to orchestrate a job shadow day for Klein Independent School District students three years ago, he jumped at the chance to share information with them about all types of jobs at different levels within the county.
“It’s always resonated with me to let kids know there is something out there for you that you may not have thought of yet, or may not have thought you would enjoy, and you’ll excel at,” Reed said.
Reed feels it’s important to highlight the exciting and rewarding job options available at Harris County that many don’t recognize because they are stuck on the idea of becoming a doctor or an engineer.
“Don’t get downhearted because you can’t be a doctor or don’t get into A&M,” Reed advises. There are niche areas of those larger industries that are often overlooked by young people, so it’s important to make sure they know there’s a place for them to thrive.
Reed organized the job shadow day to put Career & Technical Education (CTE) students face-to-face with Precinct 4 employees.
“We tried to make sure we had a broad spectrum of staff present – some with a college background, some that never finished college, some that never went to college,” he said.
Following the first job shadow day, Reed was inspired to expand the reach of the event to include more students and more Harris County departments, so he approached Precinct 4 Commissioner R. Jack Cagle with the idea.
Precinct 4 is now leading the way in creating partnerships to help educate high school and college students about career opportunities in the public sector.
Working with Humble, Klein, Spring, and Tomball school districts and Lone Star College, Precinct 4 is bringing 17 Harris County departments and agencies together so area students can learn about careers in government. Precinct 4 plans to invite homeschool groups, charter schools, additional districts, and other organizations to participate.
“This amazing partnership connects high school students with the departments in county government that are aligned with our Career & Technical Education pathways,” said Deborah Bronner-Westerduin, the CTE director at Klein ISD.
The event is offered specifically to CTE students who are taking upper-level courses in the pathways most relevant to future career opportunities in Harris County and are ready to take the next step in their education.
For many, that step is moving into the two-year system at Lone Star College, where the Faces of Harris County event is hosted. For others, it’s going into a four-year program at a college or university. Some will directly enter the workforce with an industry-based certification.
“What it’s really allowing students to do is realize the opportunities that are available with the county government that they may not be aware of without an event such as this,” said Bronner-Westerduin.
The event format is like a job fair but with live interviews and a Q&A session at the end.
Kent Clingerman is a community aide for Precinct 4’s Community Assistance Department and emcee of the Faces of Harris County events. He began his radio career in Houston before he turned 20 years old and has hosted radio shows and concerts, and interviewed musicians, athletes, authors, and more.
“The big idea was to make it more interactive,” Reed said. “What makes this all work, and the difference between other forums and job fairs, is Kent doing this like a late-night talk show.”
Every interview is a little different. Clingerman works to make some questions fun with the occasional surprise.
Participants from Harris County departments include those from law enforcement, parks, public health, engineering, flood control, dispute resolution, and more who are breaking down the stereotypes of what a government employee does.
Reed and Clingerman coordinate with the managers of these departments and ask for someone to come out and speak, set up a table, and talk to the students about what their job is all about.
“Maybe you didn’t know anything about public health or how to get a career there, and you get to find out those things,” said Clingerman. “It’s opening up people’s eyes at an early age that there are so many opportunities – ‘I thought I was going to heal people and be a doctor, and now I’m going to get into preventative medicine and nutrition or disease control’,” said Clingerman. “You can still get into the world of medicine, but just a different angle on it.”
Harris County, the third-most populous county in the nation, employs more than 18,000 people serving its 4.6 million residents. “Bringing more awareness to the job opportunities in Harris County is vital to meeting the needs of continued growth in the region,” said Michele Will, the human resources manager for Precinct 4.
Harris County is challenged with attracting new employees despite a comprehensive benefits plan including medical, dental, and vision insurance as well as a competitive pension. “It’s so important that we ensure young people are aware of the diverse and plentiful career options available,” Will said.
Part of the struggle is the general misunderstanding of Harris County services, so the Q&A sessions at the end are enlightening for the students and Precinct 4 staff.
“You never really know what’s going to come out of a student’s mouth, but we’ve had fantastic results come from those unexpected questions,” said Clingerman. “They’ve been great conversations to have to showcase what the jobs are really all about.”
Precinct 4’s Community Outreach Division works every day to make sure residents understand how their tax dollars are spent, so it’s essential for community aides to have tremendous familiarity with other departments.
“We’ve learned more about the county, so it’s been educational for our side too,” said Reed. “That’s a big part of community aide work – it allows us to have that back story that makes our conversations with constituents more relevant and hit home.”
The goal for Precinct 4’s Faces of Harris County events is to change the image of county government and help students intentionally choose a path for their career that’s in line with their talents and ambitions.
“You have this perception of what government work looks like, and then you find out that it’s completely different, and if we can give that experience to a 17- or 18-year-old, that’s a huge win,” said Clingerman.