Over the past few years, educators from junior high school through college have implemented more industry-driven curriculum in hopes of addressing a skills gap plaguing young people entering the workforce.

Recently the Mobile Area Education Foundation (MAEF) gave more than 100 high school seniors the chance to take that theory to the next level with a paid summer internship program partnering with dozens of local businesses both large and small.

Vital Link 2.0 started when more than 240 local high school students went through an interview process with several local employers. Then, on June 6, those who made the final cut reported to work at locations throughout Mobile County.

The program, which is in its first year, worked through the Signature Academies at several Mobile County high schools, and MAEF’s coordinator of branding and fund development, Janelle Finley Adams, said those academies helped identify students who already had a passion for a certain career.

“If you’re at a job you’re interested in or you want to be at, you’re going to be more inclined to go every day, to show up on time and to be active and participating in the experience,” Adams said. “There’s all types of programs out there that might just stick a child in some industry, and they don’t get anything out of it. We wanted this to truly be a stepping stone to make sure these students graduate ready for college, for a career and for their lives.”

One of the employers and sponsors of Vital Link 2.0 has been Austal USA, and in the heat of the past few weeks, 19-year-old Matthew Molette has been developing his welding skills in the shipbuilder’s training center off the Causeway.

Matthew Molette, 19, is currently interning with Austal through the Mobile Area Education Foundation's Vital Link 2.0 program. (Jason Johnson)

Matthew Molette, 19, is currently interning with Austal through the Mobile Area Education Foundation’s Vital Link 2.0 program. (Jason Johnson)

Through Williamson High School’s Maritime Academy, Molette has already gained experience welding steel, but working with the lighter aluminum at Austal has expanded his skill set.

“They’re getting us ready to come in here in this environment and suit up. Most of the guys out here tell me every day, ‘Man, I wish had your opportunity when I was in school. When we were coming up we didn’t have all that,’” Molette said. “I’m just appreciative of the opportunity they’ve given us. I didn’t have to be doing this, and this is something new to me.”

Molette transferred to Williamson from New Orleans, Louisiana, last year, and said the welding program there helped him see a different possibility for a career. Austal’s workforce outreach coordinator, Napoleon Bracy Jr., said if Molette does decide to shoot for a job in shipbuilding, he’ll have a significant advantage because of the experience he’s getting now.

“We know these students really want to work here, and we wanted to provide them the opportunity to be successful,” Bracy said. “One of the things that stands out about this program is that we’re an aluminum shipyard. So they’re getting a whole other outlook on welding, and when they graduate they’ll kind of have an edge on most other students.”

Though Austal is one of the marquee partners in the program, more than 50 other businesses and public agencies are participating.

Shannon Anderson, 17, is already enrolled in the University of Alabama’s early college program at Murphy High School. When she graduates next year, Anderson is hoping to move straight on to Tuscaloosa to finish her degree and pursue a career as a pediatrician.

Through MAEF"s Vital Link 2.0, 17-year-old Shannon Anderson has spent the past month interning at the GulfQuest Maritime Museum. (Jason Johnson)

Through MAEF”s Vital Link 2.0, 17-year-old Shannon Anderson has spent the past month interning at the GulfQuest Maritime Museum. (Jason Johnson)

Though it isn’t exactly in the medical field, GulfQuest has had Anderson working with hundreds of children in school groups and on a one-on-one basis during her internship. Her supervisor, Amy Raley, said Anderson has helped the department in several capacities, but added their internship was structured to also help Anderson by developing skills she can use in the future.

“We did want her to be able to take skills away with her she could use in college later, and we’ve really focused on the technology skills she already had, like converting PDFs to JPEGs or reconfiguring PowerPoints to run on a smartboard,” Raley said. “She’s also been working and interacting with the public. She’s got a natural talent for it, but we’ve still given her those opportunities and have tried to coach her along the way.”

For Anderson, the internship with GulfQuest was her first job, which means it was her first time reporting to an employer and her first time sharing space and responsibility with coworkers. According to Adams, that type of experience is important but can be hard to get outside of the working environment.

She said it’s important to have those types of soft skills, and said students actually give them an opportunity to sink in when they’re interested in what they’re doing, especially if they already have an interest in a specific field.

“We have students at [Alabama Power’s] Barry Steam Plant who are very interested in working in advanced manufacturing,” Adams said. “They may start work at 7 a.m., but they’re in that parking lot at 6:30 a.m., because they want to show employers, ‘I can show up on time, I can leave that cell phone in the car. When I’m here for that three or four hours a day, I’m here to work.’”