BY Tyler Roberts

In an old retrofitted house in historic downtown Wilmington Erin McNally the executive director of Junior Achievement of the Cape Fear Region sits at a long table in the organizations conference room. Spread in front of her are large pictures of everyday wants and needs: clothing cars food entertainment and housing. A price tag is associated with each pictured item.

The images she explains are hung on the walls of middle school classrooms where students reach into a hat and pull out a future career. For the sake of the exercise the students are stuck with the salary their career provides and forced to make financial decisions accordingly.

The students attempt to manage their budgets as they learn about the compromises that necessitate their purchases. For instance driving a shiny new car may require sacrificing eating out for lunch with friends.

“We look at the trade-offs and how you should consider choices and decisions with your personal budget ” McNally says.

The lesson is just one example of Junior Achievement programming for middle school students. Lessons are designed around each grade levels ability to grasp concepts each year building on the last. Programming begins in kindergarten and continues through high school.

At a fundamental level Junior Achievement programs are designed to prepare students for the real world by demonstrating how to generate and manage wealth create jobs to make a community more robust and apply entrepreneurial thinking to the work place. Lessons are also designed to reinforce skills such as problem solving decision-making critical thinking and interpersonal communications.

“JA is important to a students education because it can inspire them to apply the things they learn every day in class to the world around them ” says Leah Crider a nuclear engineer at General Electric and a Junior Achievement volunteer. “It makes academic learning more relevant to everyday life.”

Last year the Junior Achievement of the Cape Fear region partnered with 23 schools in New Hanover County impacting more than 4 600 students with its programming. The organization recently expanded into Brunswick County schools thanks to a grant supplied by Piedmont Natural Gas. Other contributions come from individual donations as well as corporate sponsorship.

Lessons for elementary school students begin with a program entitled Ourselves which engages the children in activities that explain concepts such as working earning and saving. The second year focuses on Our Families which emphasizes needs wants jobs and interdependence. Programs continue to progress to Our Community Our City Our Region and finally Our Nation.

Moving forward how finances impact the world broadens with each grade level.

Throughout the elementary school curriculum students become increasingly aware of the globalized market and the importance of having an entrepreneurial mind to meet the requirements of high-growth careers nationwide.

One Junior Achievement statistic purports that 92 percent of students that participated in the fifth grade program Our Nation reported that they have a better understanding of the job market and the skills they will need to be successful in the future.

Students continue to be indoctrinated in financial literacy as they graduate to middle school and high school where multifaceted economic concepts are brought to their attention. Lessons challenge the students to consider the function of money in relation to their lifes pursuits. Goal setting planning and decision-making skills are fostered in Junior Achievements personal finance program to equip students with the skills to protect themselves from as stated on the organizations website “the unexpected financial pitfalls that plague so many adults.”

At the high school level students take a field trip to local AT&T offices for job shadowing experiences. Students meet with AT&T engineers and electricians both in the office and in the construction yard. During these site visits they learn about the skills required for specific jobs.

AT&T Regional Director John Lyon who serves on the Junior Achievement Cape Fear Region board of directors says the job shadowing experience emphasizes education particularly graduating from high school. Acquiring basic skills such as reading and writing as well as computer knowledge are absolutely necessary in a modern working environment he said.

The lessons learned through the job shadow at AT&T reach far beyond an understanding of the skills required for specific jobs; the program additionally intends to provide students with a holistic outlook for their future careers. Lyon describes how the students participate in mock job interviews discuss other various career paths and absorb the importance of education throughout the day.

“Hopefully they walk away from the job shadow event with a real world knowledge of some expectations that will be put on them when they decide to join the workforce ” Lyon said.

Third party evaluations published by Junior Achievement state that 90 percent of student participants agreed that the programs made them realize the importance of staying in school.

Junior Achievement motivates students to begin focusing on the future from a very early age. Starting in the fifth grade children examine desired career paths and the qualities required to realize those career goals. The students are asked to reflect on their own personal characteristics as well asking questions such as “Am I trustworthy?” “Do I complete my work on time?” and “Can I easily recognize patterns?”

The process puts ideas into motion. As the gears turn students identify their strengths and weaknesses then classify qualities they might want to develop for a certain career.

“It is great because a lot of times students in the fifth grade havent really had someone ask that question before ” McNally says.

The lessons learned through Junior Achievement advance childrens and teens consideration of finances and how it influences the world around them. This may come as an advantage especially in a time when the world is experiencing turbulent stock markets and ever-rising prices of commodities.

“Currently it is even more apparent that students need to learn more about financial literacy ” McNally says. “It is in the news and children are hearing about it so their interest is piqued about it.”

Empowered with the tools acquired from Junior Achievement students can enter the world of personal finance with confidence. Drawing from their experiences they can make informed decisions that will help them reach career goals and better their surrounding community.

“One thing that I like about Junior Achievement is that they have a slogan about empowering youth ” Crider says. “I think that is a really simple concept but has a lot of valuethe kids are going to become the innovators and the leaders one day.”