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No longer the best-kept secret

Two programs in Grundy County work to keep talent in the region

GAVC student Caiden White works with the automotive technology class as they work on struts on practice vehicles at the GAVC center. Below: The front office at the Grundy Area Vocational Center highlights it's partner high schools.
GAVC student Caiden White works with the automotive technology class as they work on struts on practice vehicles at the GAVC center. Below: The front office at the Grundy Area Vocational Center highlights it's partner high schools.

MORRIS – Behind Morris Community High School, the manila-brick building hums with activity – the high-pitched whine of air tools, the sound of fingers moving quickly on keyboards or the commotion of a busy kitchen.

Each program is filled with upperclassmen from across Grundy County getting hands-on experience at the Grundy Area Vocational Center. As part of a two-week series, the Morris Herald-News looked into the opportunities for work across Grundy County and how the area not only is attracting new talent, but also retaining the talent that already is here.

“GAVC is many different things to many people,” said Lance Copes, director of the center.

The center offers more than a dozen programs for high school students to get experience in different vocations, from automotive technology to cosmetology to welding.

“We were always known as the best-kept secret in Grundy County 10 or
15 years ago, and I think we’ve emerged as not being a secret anymore,” Copes said.

As high schools push to make students college and career ready, the vocational center allows students for both tracks to experience the work.

“A student can come to us and explore something they’re interested in before they make a decision with their parents to enter college and pay tuition,” Copes said.

Assistant director Jeanne Skube described the program as “high school-plus.”

“You’re coming here, exploring a career; you’re finding a direction,” she said. “In addition to that high school credit, you’re getting industry credentials.”

The equipment can get expensive. Along with some federal money, Copes said, all four of the feeder high schools in Grundy County – MCHS, Coal City High School, Gardner-South Wilmington High School and Minooka High School – help fund GAVC.

GAVC also works closely with the Grundy Economic Development Council, which has an internship program that allows students in the area to explore careers at area businesses. The number of opportunities varies each year, depending on which businesses participate, but Nikki Wills, business director at GEDC, said there are about 40 across the county.

The program started when area businesses, organizations and schools saw that talented students were heading off to college, earning their degrees and not returning to Grundy County. It began with the question, “How do we get them back?”

The internship program allows students to not only see what an accountant or engineer does on a daily basis, but they also make connections in the community and with people in the field.

With about 40 internships open to every high school student in Grundy County, it can be competitive for students. But even those who don’t get hired can get valuable experience. Wills said GEDC asks that interviewers point out any mistakes that the student make in both the interview and on their résumé. They don’t all need it.

“Some of these kids interview better than adults,” Wills said. “It’s an opportunity for the right student to meet the right employer.”

The program began six years ago with four internships. A year later, it grew to eight. As that first crop of students graduates, Willis said, some have returned.

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