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Spire gas fitter Ronald Buckner needs to change a meter. It’s a task he has done innumerable times in his 27-year career.

He’s going to put a gauge on, take the lock off and put the meter on bypass. No problem.

But this time, he has an audience. So, he talks them through each step, then points to a gas lamp, its flame flickering through the blanket of afternoon humidity.

“If I do it right, the pilot light should not go out,” says Buckner, wearing a button-down in the Spire’s signature atomic orange. As he twists his wrench, the meter belts out a hum before it escalates to a hiss.

“Now we’re on bypass,” he tells a group of educators gathered on a recent Thursday in front of the fake brick backdrop under the Spire demonstration canopy.

The teachers pepper Buckner with questions: What union is he in? How many days a week does he work? What does he do if someone has been messing with their meter?

Their interest doesn’t stem from a desire to change careers. They are adding to their store of information to share with students come fall.

The Spire visit is part of a week of field trips to companies that are looking to educators to help them shore up their future talent pool.

Forty teachers and counselors signed up for the Show-Me Careers Educator Experience, a professional development “boot camp” that offers an inside look at workplaces such as BJC HealthCare, Koller Enterprises and PARIC construction.

“We’re the kids who do the extra credit,” said Renell Brown, who teaches chemistry in Parkway School District.

The teachers were still going strong at 4 p.m. after starting the day at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park and hopping a bus to Missouri American Water in Florissant for a tour of the sedimentation basin, pump and filter rooms. Then it was back on the bus to the natural gas company in Shrewsbury for a blitz of organizational presentations – from operations to finance.

A 15-minute break had been built in, but the teachers abandoned it in favor of more questions: What are the opportunities at Spire for high school kids? How important is writing and communication in your work? What kind of employment tests do you have?

Then they closed up their binders and headed outside to see how gas pressure is regulated, gas lines are mapped and meters are replaced.

“There are 3 million gas lines in the United States,” one of the Spire workers said. “Think of all the jobs.”

Brown had been doing that all week.

“I’m not from St. Louis, so I’m not familiar with all the businesses in town,” said Brown, who grew up in Peoria, Ill.

The field trips have given her ideas on how to show students the real-world applications of what they are learning in her classroom. She heard about the Missouri Chamber of Conference-sponsored program from a colleague who participated last summer, in its inaugural year.

“We have a really big influence on what (the students) decide to do and helping them realize that all of this is here,” she said, looking around to the fleet of trucks on Spire’s back parking lot.

“Kids who are like, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do,’ are not going to the guidance counselor or the career fair. Talking to a classroom teacher might be the only chance they get. We’re here because we want to tell our kids, there is more to life after K-12 than college, or there are alternative paths to college.”

Reaching kids through teachers

The Show-Me Careers Educator Experience grew out of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce’s 2030 strategic plan. Work on that began in 2015 and included extensive interviews with CEOs across the state.

Their No. 1 issue, said Dan Mehan, the chamber’s president, was workforce development.

Employees holding “middle-skills” jobs – those that require more than high school but less than a four-year degree – are aging out of the workforce. At the same time, the U.S. Department of Labor is predicting an 8% to 9% growth in such jobs over the next decade. Those related to infrastructure, the power grid, plumbing, pipefitting and steamfitting are expected to achieve double-digit percentage growth.

“There was a simple conversation about supply and demand, how to connect with kids and employers,” Mehan said. “We thought, we can access kids through teachers.”

They partnered with the Regional Business Council, STEMpact, Boeing and the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to put the summer program together.

The teachers who participate – this year’s group represents 12 school districts – earn a $400 stipend for their time. Sponsors cover the cost of the program, which comes to about $900 per participant.

“Our idea is to prove it up in St. Louis and then take it across Missouri,” Mehan said. “This will be how Missouri differentiates itself in workforce development.”

Michelle Luraschi, a college and career coordinator in Pattonville School District, hopes that happens.

“It’s exactly the type of information that I need to help students,” she said after the Spire demonstrations. “Colleges contact us all the time, but it is very rare for businesses to do this, so it was a golden opportunity to go behind the scenes and see what jobs are available.”

She said she is slowly seeing a shift from the idea that college is the only path to a career. “We need people who work in the skilled trades and who work in health care,” Luraschi said. “The more we talk about it, the more the pendulum swings to the middle, where it needs to be.”

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