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Things Are CLICing


Jennifer Connelly shows off the wall

Jennifer Connelly shows off the wall in the wall that is the symbolic start of work to create JA’s new Career, Leadership & Innovation Center.

It was officially called a groundbreaking, but Jennifer Connelly says it was more of a “wallbreaking.”

Indeed, Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, representatives of the many sponsors involved with the project, and other VIPs took turns swinging a large sledgehammer at a wall just off the entrance to the Tower Square offices of Junior Achievement (JA) of Western Massachusetts.

The hole they left behind is still there more than a month later, a poignant symbol of the work — at least the physical construction work — soon to commence on what is being called the Career, Leadership & Innovation Center, or CLIC, a facility that will focus on those first three words with a number of intriguing programs.

Indeed, the center will help students identify career options and make smart decisions regarding post-secondary education; expand their thinking and skill development, thus better preparing them to be future leaders, entrepreneurs, and innovators; and provide them with the skills and knowledge that will allow them to make informed and effective decisions with their financial resources.

“For the past 10 to 15 years, the board has talked about having a center where people could come and learn about careers.”

JA is creating the center in collaboration with MassHire Hampden County, the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, other agencies, and several area employers, said Connelly, and is designed to address a gap when it comes to educating young people about careers and the paths to them.

“We found that there’s a piece missing in the pipeline when it comes to inspiring young people to have careers here in the region,” said Connelly, adding that the center will enable students to learn about and then explore options in fields they may not have been thinking about. In that respect, it will help open doors for young people while also helping to put workers in the pipeline for businesses across every sector of the economy, from healthcare to manufacturing.

In a way, this is a groundbreaking (there’s that word again) new initiative for JA of Western Massachusetts, said Connelly, and in another way … it isn’t. Indeed, while the CLIC is new, it’s also a throwback of sorts to what JA was decades ago — a place where young people could come to learn about business, actually make and then sell products, and gain financial literacy.

An architect’s rendering of the new Career, Leadership & Innovation Center.

“This is what JA used to be — and that’s what I like best about the center; this will be a place that students can come to,” she said, adding that, while JA of Western Massachusetts has been going into area schools for decades now, it hasn’t had a site that young people can come to since the ’80s.

Work on the CLIC is set to commence in the coming weeks, and the facility is scheduled to open in mid-September. Over the first nine months or so of operations, more than 750 junior-high and high-school students (up to 25 at a time) are expected to visit the center, spend the better part of a day there, and gain new insight into careers, how to attain them, and much more.

The project has drawn a number of supporters, including the city of Springfield, Beveridge Family Foundation, Balise Auto Group, M&T Bank, Country Bank, PeoplesBank, TD Bank, and Savage Arms, who have helped meet the $400,000 cost of the project.

A capital campaign will be staged over the next several months to raise the balance of what’s needed for the initiative, Connelly said, adding that the agency is hoping to gain the support of more area businesses, and is scheduling site visits for those interested in learning more about its mission and how it will be carried out.


Learning While Doing

Connelly told BusinessWest that the CLIC was conceptualized in the fall of 2021 amid what she considered an obvious need for a facility that would not merely take JA back to its roots in many respects, but also help to better prepare young people for life, careers, and the many challenges involving both.

And the need has been there for some time, she went on.

“For the past 10 to 15 years, the board has talked about having a center where people could come and learn about careers,” she said, adding that the idea came off the drawing board and into reality with the help of those aforementioned sponsors and a desire for JA to play a pivotal role in helping to solve the workforce needs of employers while also putting young people on a path to not just jobs, but careers.

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno takes a swing at the wall that will be coming down to make way for the new center.

As plans for the CLIC began to materialize, she said, a search commenced for a space. Many options were considered, but eventually those at JA concluded they had everything they needed — space-wise, at least — in its suite of offices on the mezzanine level at Tower Square.

The 3,045-square-foot facility will be reconfigured and furnished for the new center, she noted, adding that the CLIC will include a number of components, including:

• A learning lab that will provide student groups with what Connelly called a “starting point for their career exploration journey.” It will also be a space to promote JA’s financial-literacy curriculum;

• A collaboration hub, which will provide groups with a space for interactive work, problem solving, and critical and creative thinking. The space will include modular seating, whiteboards, breakout laptops and tablets, and a leadership library; and

• A manufacturing lab, a makerspace that will provide young adults with the tools and programs to explore and accelerate a career in the manufacturing industry. The CLIC steering committee is currently working with local manufacturers to determine the best resources for the space, Connelly said, adding that equipment may eventually include 3D printers, a flow forge, a Cricut suite, hand tools, soldering kits, and STEM kits.

Overall, the CLIC will provide experiential learning opportunities for middle- and high-school students, said Connelly, adding that, by engaging students in hands-on experiences and reflection, “they are better able to connect theories and knowledge learned in the classroom to real work situations.”

And such connections are needed at a time when many young people need exposure to careers and the paths to them, she noted, adding that, for middle-school students, visits to the CLIC may help them with the all-important decision of deciding which high school to attend.

As she talked about a visit to the CLIC, Connelly said it will be preceded by completion of JA Inspire Virtual, a career-exploration program designed to highlight careers and educational opportunities in the region. At the center, students will participate in a seminar led by guest speakers from local businesses, and then rotate through the modular-based learning experiences at the learning lab, collaboration zone, and manufacturing space — followed by a working lunch with financial-literacy activities.

The center will also be open after school for students interested in pursuing entrepreneurial interests by operating their own student company. And in the evening, the center will be available to community organizations and local employers as a hub for learning and collaboration.


Bottom Line

Turning back the clock maybe 50 years or so, Connelly noted that what is now JA of Western Massachusetts was an agency, but also a place where young people from schools across the area could come and, through its ‘company’ program, form a business, make a product, and sell it.

Through the CLIC, JA will be able to provide that kind of experience again, she said, adding that, while the center is a blast from the past in some respects, it is really all about the future — as in the future of thousands of area young people and the area businesses that will, hopefully, employ them.


— George O’Brien