At Flagger Force, our promise to Keep Our Communities Moving® goes beyond traffic control. We are committed to teaching today’s diverse workforce the soft skills that are needed to thrive in a variety of roles and providing them with career and personal growth opportunities. As the employment landscape evolves and the demands of the traffic control industry change, ensuring our employees have the knowledge and resources needed to succeed is critical.

Our career development efforts extend beyond our work zones and adult workforce. We strive to inspire students and the future workforce as well. Many of our employees volunteer their time at Junior Achievement (JA) of South Central PA, helping students explore future career paths and providing learning experiences that focus on work readiness, financial literacy, and entrepreneurship. We recently had the opportunity to connect with Tom Russell, CEO of Junior Achievement of South Central PA, to discuss the organization’s diverse programs, the impact of their efforts, and the foundational skills they help students develop that empower a stronger workforce.  

Tom Russell’s connection to Junior Achievement began in 1988 when he became involved with the organization as a volunteer. He served as board chairman from 1993 to 1995. He joined the staff and became the CEO of JA of South Central PA in 2006.

See what Tom Russell shared during our recent conversation to learn how Junior Achievement of South Central PA is inspiring students to reach their potential.  

How did you become involved with Junior Achievement of South Central PA?

Tom: I was working for a company and spent time volunteering at a couple of nonprofits, including Junior Achievement. I fell in love with JA’s mission and from the very beginning my connection to the organization was strong. I volunteered with JA for about 15 years, serving as a board member, the chairman of the board, and working on several different committees during that time. Later in my career when I was preparing to retire, the CEO position at JA of South Central PA came open. I was already serving on the board, so I transitioned into the staff role and have been in the position ever since. 

What are your daily roles and responsibilities within the organization?

Tom: The CEO is responsible for leading the organization, but I also like to refer to my role as the “chief storyteller.” I am responsible for raising about $2.5 million a year from the business community, so I tell stories from a fundraising standpoint. I share what Junior Achievement does, why we do it, and the impact that the organization makes. I am also responsible for managing the organization and our 62 staff members, 55 of which are part-time. Understanding the power of part-time staff and how to recruit individuals who prioritize making a difference over financial aspects has been important.

What is the mission of Junior Achievement?

Tom: “Inspiring Tomorrows™” is a short tag we use to summarize Junior Achievement’s mission. The organization is about 115 years old. It started in Connecticut as a business-based nonprofit trying to prepare young people for the workforce. During the early days of JA, many individuals were transitioning from farming and similar jobs to more industrialized work in the city, which was a challenge. Today, JA’s mission has morphed into a similar role of helping prepare students for their future. We go into classrooms and inspire children and teens to think about their economic future, giving them the realization that what they do with their life is dependent on what they want to get out of it. Helping students connect to the real world, understand what jobs are available, how they can become successful in their endeavors, and giving them a spark of motivation is a key part of what we do.

What programs does Junior Achievement of South Central PA offer?

Tom: Prior to the late 1980s, Junior Achievement was an after-school program. Today, we are in the classroom and provide different programs for students in pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade. Volunteers work with teachers at every grade level to provide age-appropriate topics and concepts. Our programs focus on three pyramids:

  • Work Readiness
  • Financial Literacy
  • Entrepreneurship

Through our programs, we help students understand personal economics and explore potential careers based on their strengths and interests. There are 15 career clusters intended to help students begin to think about the kinds of jobs that would appeal to them. Career clusters are industry-specific umbrellas, such as construction, education, government affairs, etc., that have related jobs built into them. For example, traffic control would fall within the construction career cluster. Having identifiable career clusters and related jobs helps students assess what they may want to be when they grow up.   

Can you describe Junior Achievement of South Central PA’s BizTown program?

Tom: BizTown is the capstone program for elementary students. It is a miniature city in York, Pennsylvania, one of 36 in the country. Students participate in Junior Achievement throughout their early years in school, and by fifth or sixth grade, a school will sign up for their students to come to BizTown. Students prepare for their trip to BizTown by going through a series of 16 activities to learn about the community, government, employees, how businesses are formed, and more. They will fill out a job application and participate in mock interviews in the classroom to get ready for their experience at BizTown. When they arrive at BizTown, they will go into their assigned business. There are 15 businesses in total, each with a different function. We have a construction business, a radio station, a bank, City Hall, and Bizbotics, to name a few.

The first hour of the day is the preparation phase, so the assigned CEO of the business will go to the bank to borrow money, go to City Hall to sign a lease on their property and complete other tasks. Then, the next three hours are focused on bringing the businesses to life and running a city. Each employee (student) will get paid twice and go to the bank to deposit their checks. They will have time to go shopping or to lunch and learn how to manage their earnings. At its core, the BizTown program is a hands-on learning experience that is a culmination of elementary concepts.

Do you have any success stories that highlight the positive outcomes and benefits of Junior Achievement of South Central PA’s programs?

Tom: STEM Summit is our ninth-grade program. It is a day-long event held in a high school gym, where Junior Achievement brings in about 40 volunteers to help guide students through nine different modules of STEM activities, including chemistry, biology, math, engineering, etc. The goal of STEM Summit is to give students exposure to careers that they may have never thought of before. We even have electrical workers host a competition for students, so they can experience what it is like to be an electrician.

We had a young woman who had known from the very beginning that she wanted to be a journalist because she loved writing. Then, she came to STEM Summit and fell in love with chemistry, something she never thought of as a possibility in her future. She took two levels of chemistry in high school and then went to Penn State and earned a degree in chemical engineering. She now works in Baltimore, Maryland, with Volvo as their environmental scientist. All of that was because of a 30-minute experience she had during STEM Summit that created a spark!

Another story I would like to share is about a student who was originally from Guatemala and had only been at the school for three weeks. He spoke very little English, so he was disconnected from his peers and struggling to adjust. The high school’s science teacher went to check on this student during JA’s STEM Summit, and noticed he was smiling and actively involved in the electrical competition. The science teacher could not believe it, so after the young man had left, she went up to the volunteer who was working with him. The volunteer shared that he was speaking to the student in Spanish and had a very similar story. Eight years ago, the volunteer had moved from Nicaragua and was in the exact same situation as the student from Guatemala. The volunteer was able to connect with the student and share advice. All because of that moment of contact with a JA volunteer, the young man had a spark of hope.

How do the different Junior Achievement organizations collaborate to develop the programs you mentioned? Or are the programs specific to Junior Achievement of South Central PA?

Tom: Junior Achievement USA has 102 offices across the country, and each is managed locally. The fundraising is done locally, and the board of trustees is local, so we refer to it as a federated model. Each location has the opportunity to chart their own direction and course. JA of South Central PA has been in business since 1955 and we have been very fortunate to have leadership who recognizes the opportunities to be unique and different in our own way. We utilize some of the programs that JA USA develops, but also implement our own local programs that help us adapt or be more effective at what we do. For example, all the in-class programs we offer for kindergarten through fifth grade are part of the JA USA model. We reach about 50,000 students with those programs. BizTown, STEM Summit, Yes!, our financial and career planning program for middle school students, and REAL Life, our financial literacy and career-readiness forum for high school students, are programs that were built by and unique to JA of South Central PA. Approximately half of our work is national, the other half is local.

Do you have any statistics or data specific to the impact of Junior Achievement’s programs within South Central PA?

Tom: One of the things that Junior Achievement of South Central PA believes is that every student at every grade level should have a JA experience. If we achieved this goal, we would serve 370,000 students in 95 different school districts. We are currently reaching 110,000 individuals, or approximately one-third of students in South Central PA. We have about a 30% penetration or market share. The national average for JA USA is 7.5%. We are about four times more impactful than the other offices!

Unlike other organizations, JA does not offer a mentorship program or work with students for a long period of time. Our goal is to create a spark. We have about 8,000 volunteers who visit each student an average of five times. That is 40,000 sparks that we can create. JA has the ninth-largest student impact rate in the country.

How will the skills that students develop through Junior Achievement’s programs empower a stronger workforce in the future?

Tom: Because of the pandemic and the nature of social media, it can be difficult for schools to address and teach interpersonal skills. From interacting with other students and working in teams to effectively communicating and problem-solving, Junior Achievement provides experiential programs to help students develop these skills. All our activities are team-based, so students must work together, communicate, and accomplish the goals of the project they are working on. The soft skills are intrinsically built into the activities and are critical to empowering a stronger workforce in the future. From a work readiness standpoint, we have fifth and sixth graders that dress up and participate in mock interviews. They shake hands and make eye contact – they understand the importance of creating a great first impression during a job interview. The last piece that can empower a stronger workforce is what JA calls connecting the dots. Through volunteer storytelling, students can better understand the connections between what they are learning today in the classroom (i.e., math, writing, etc.) and how it will apply to their future tomorrow and careers.

What role does Junior Achievement, educators, and the community play in preparing students for the workforce?

Tom: I want to start with educators. One of the advantages of Junior Achievement is that it gives the business community and parents a chance to see the challenges that educators face every day. The obstacles they face are greater than anything I think we have ever witnessed, partly because of the pressures young people face, social media, and many other factors. I cannot thank educators enough for the work that they are doing with our children. Giving the community at large a chance to be involved and part of the solution to help students become better prepared for the future is important. The business community has a responsibility to help young people be ready. When a company looks at its applicant flow and questions, “Who is getting these people ready?” or “Why are they not more reliable?”, the answer is that we as a community have not properly prepared them. If you consider it from a company standpoint, having a better applicant flow is a win-win. Having citizens who are responsible is key.

How can businesses, like Flagger Force, best support Junior Achievement of South Central PA?

Tom: Volunteer. The only way we can do more is to get more volunteers. We currently have about 8,000 volunteers, but if we had 12,000, we could create more sparks. Junior Achievement is a business-based nonprofit, so all our funding and volunteers come from the business community. The connection between schools and businesses is impactful, so having more volunteers helps us do what we do. It is important to note that JA provides volunteers with training and the materials they will need to be successful in the classroom.  

Are there any characteristics that make a business better suited for volunteer opportunities?

Tom: The goal of the volunteer is not to teach, but instead work with the students in an interactive, experiential way. If a volunteer can get students excited about learning more and inspire them, they are a great fit. Flagger Force employees have volunteered for BizTown and have worked in the city to coach students and help them work through their jobs, so the ability to coach and provide guidance to students is also an important characteristic.

Do you have any volunteer impact stories that are important to share?

Tom: In 2000, I had the pleasure of going to Indianapolis, Indiana, to look at the first Junior Achievement BizTown in the country. I walked into the city, and it was running with students actively doing their jobs. Instantly, everyone was blown away and it was the most amazing simulation I had ever seen. I walked up to a parent volunteer in the construction business and asked him, “What do you think?” He said, “This is the best thing I have ever seen.” He pointed to the bank and said, “My son is working over in the bank. I cannot tell you how much he is learning from this program.” I agreed, and he continued. “But I got to tell you, I have learned more than he has. As a parent, I have spent my time telling my kids what to do. Do this and do not do that. What I learned today is if you just step back and ask a couple of questions, they are perfectly capable of figuring it out on their own.”

This interaction was like an epiphany for me. Not only does JA bring 12,000 students through the town, but we also bring 2,000 parents or company volunteers who get to witness firsthand the sheer capacity that fifth and sixth graders have if you just give them a chance. They need the chance to try something new, fail, and figure it out. They have an amazing mindset if we make the experience fun. Making learning fun and engaging is what JA is all about.

At Flagger Force, we are pleased to connect with other professionals and organizations that make a positive impact in the lives of others and share our passion for helping communities keep on moving, growing, and thriving. We want to thank Junior Achievement of South Central PA for making this thoughtful discussion possible. And we thank Tom Russell for sharing so many heartwarming stories that showcase how JA of South Central PA and its volunteers inspire a brighter tomorrow for students.