Gwinnett County principals and district leaders (right) are greeted by Heraeus employees (left) during a field trip to Heraeus in Buford, Thursday, June 13, 2019. For the third year, Gwinnett County Public Schools is partnering with area businesses to host its Principal Field Trip. This year, 60 school system leaders (high school and middle school principals, as well as a few district leaders) will participate, getting a firsthand look into the world of business and industry within Gwinnett County. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

Field trip shows school officials world of opportunities for students

When students consider local companies with multinational ties that they may one day want to work for, Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines and Home Depot may immediately come to mind, but those are just a few in a sea of possibilities. Georgia is home to more than 2,000 businesses with operations in just about every country in the world. Many, like Germany-based Hereaus Quarzglas, aren’t typical household names.

To expose students to a world of opportunities, Gwinnett County Public Schools has partnered with area businesses for its third annual Principal Field Trip. The idea is, if principals know about the many employers right in their backyard, the knowledge trickles down to instructors, counselors and other staff who work directly with students.

This year, 60 school system leaders (high school and middle school principals, as well as a few district leaders) took part. The day-long, externship-type atmosphere allowed them to make connections between technical courses offered at each school and high-wage, high-skill, in-demand jobs in the county.

According to the Georgia Department of Economic Development, these international companies employ more than 150,000 people in the state.

Why have principals on the tour? Studies have shown that effective administrative leadership in schools is an important component of student success. Having principals buy into the program by seeing the benefits firsthand makes a difference, Gwinnett officials said.

“This is an incredible opportunity to talk high-level vision for the benefit of the students,” said Jonathan Patterson, associate superintendent for curriculum and instructional support, adding that the annual field trip has become one of his favorite days of the school year. “We get to connect with the business community in a way that helps us shape student progress and give them a competitive advantage.”

The AJC was invited on the tour at Heraeus, the world’s largest processor and manufacturer of synthetic fused silica, which is essential for the high-tech and telecommunications industries. These specialized ultra-high-purity materials help power optical data transmission technology, wireless phone and data networks and consumer electronics. About a fourth of all fiber optic cables in the world have some component manufactured at the Buford plant.

The visit to Heraeus was timely as the company has a unique connection to the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing being celebrated next month. Heraeus provided the reflector mirrors for the Apollo 11 Lunar Laser Retro-Reflector experiment — the only equipment still operating 50 years later. The success of that experiment has led to the development of GPS technology and next-generation “5G” communications networks.

“We have about 200 employees here at the Buford plant with various educational backgrounds and skill sets,” said Grant Lu, president. “We’re a 24/7 operation and we have people who’ve started with us right out of high school to ones with PhDs.”

Ken Koch, a senior process specialist, is an example of how the company promotes from within. He graduated from a New Jersey vocational high school in 1983. “I knew a little bit about electronics and moved to various jobs from there,” he said.

At 34 years, Koch has been with the company longest of anyone at the Buford plant. He’s lived in Germany and plans to retire in Gwinnett County.

“If you bring a willingness to learn and adapt, the company will teach you what you need to know,” he said.

Heraus has partnerships with Lanier Tech and Gwinnett County’s WorkSource Now to find people who fit the company profile.

“Soft skills like a strong work ethic, positive outlook, integrity, reliability, detail-oriented and team spirit are things you can’t teach,” said Melisssa Miller, HR department head. “We can teach everything else.”

Nathan Ballantine, principal of North Gwinnett High School, agreed that the firsthand knowledge about what the company looks for in future employees will help prepare students for the work world. Getting off campus and getting to know his neighbors helps grow solid relationships, he added.

“If nothing else, I can tell students I know what goes on in that building we drive past every day.”

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