Summer camps offer Midland County ESA students hands-on career exploration

The end of the school year is nearing, and that means summer break is not far behind! While most young students enjoy the time out of the classroom, some parents would prefer their children to continue learning even in the warmer weather months. The Midland County Educational Service Agency (ESA) offers students many hands-on learning and career exploration summer camps from June to August. 

Don Johnson is the director of career and technical education for the Midland County ESA, which is focused on special education, early childhood, and career and technical education. 
Midland ESAWelding is one of the many trade skills students can learn hands-on.“One of the key things about ESAs is that they sit on the county-wide level so that they can coordinate services,” Johnson says. “That’s the purpose — is to kind of help the local school districts share services and programming. It makes it so every student has more opportunities, and it makes all of the districts more efficient.”

The Midland County ESA has provided career-oriented summer camps for the last 10 years. The first camp they introduced was the skilled trades camp, which is still offered to this day. 

“We’ve had just under 600 students participate in the skilled trades camp in the last 10 years,” Johnson says. It’s an introduction to skilled trades, a very hands-on camp. They don’t just learn about heavy equipment; they actually get to operate heavy equipment. They get to weld; they don’t just get to learn about welding.”

Local contractors and licensed professionals are teaching the students, utilizing their current experience and expertise in their respective fields. Their successful careers help show students that there are many professional pathways post-graduation. For some, a nontraditional two-year or one-year apprenticeship program might be more suitable than a four-year degree from a university. 

Johnson says programs need to attract students earlier, long before their junior or senior year of high school. Coupled with a debt crisis of students obtaining a four-year degree but never getting the value back, many look to the trades as a logical option. 

“I saw a statistic the other day that said in the Great Lakes Bay Region, 25 percent of graduating seniors need to go into the trades to maintain the workforce that we need to support all of the construction projects in the next five years. There are a lot of benefits you can get out of the trades — you can start working immediately while you get trained, with a progression in wages.”

In addition to the long-running trades camp, Midland County ESA also offers a healthcare camp, an agriscience culinary camp, and a career readiness and exploration camp. Midland ESAStudents learn farm-to-for culinary skils at The Depot in Coleman

“In total, we have served 1,046 kids in our summer camps up until this year,” Johnson says. “We want to help kids understand all the opportunities that they have. It's a fairly low time investment to get a pretty good view of that career area. It’s very hands-on. We make it a fun three or four days of your summer.”

These camps provide students with a chance to explore careers in a more casual, low-stakes setting rather than in college or specialized curriculums in high school. Middle school students and adolescents can quickly learn if a career isn’t for them early on instead of spending thousands of dollars on a two-year degree they’re not passionate about later on in life. 

The goals of the camps are twofold: they are meant to provide education, spur economic development, and attract/retain talent. 

“We need to connect kids to the community and the outside world because that’s where they’re going to live the vast majority of their lives,” Johnson says. “We understand the more connected they are to the community and employers, the more likely they will find employment and live here long-term.”

Sometimes, employers or staff within the programs show an interest in hiring students upon graduation or can even offer them a job on the spot. With partnering organizations, including local high schools, training organizations, healthcare networks, colleges and universities, builder’s associations, and trade groups, the summer camps are truly a collaborative community-wide effort. 

“Our standard is the real world, so we want kids out working with people who are practicing, not necessarily in a school,” Johnson says. “Each camp is at different locations.”
Starting at Square 1 camp teaches how to lay cement at Fisher ContractingFor example, students in the ‘Starting at Square 1’ skilled trades camp will do cement work at Fisher Contracting on their site and other tasks like HVAC, electrical, and welding at other locations. Students in the ‘Scrub Life’ healthcare camp will practice simulations and first aid at Davenport University, CMU, and MyMichigan Health. Students in the ‘What’s on the Menu’ farm-to-fork camp will be learning hands-on at the Depot Restaurant in Coleman. 

Typically, there are 25 students in each camp, ranging from ages 12 to 18 years old. Pricing of the camps varies, and ranges from $135 to $268, which includes all materials, transportation, and food. There are also scholarship applications available for those who need financial assistance. Applications are due by May 24. For more detailed information and summer camp dates, visit their website to learn more. 
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Sarah Spohn is a Lansing native, but every day finds a new interesting person, place, or thing in towns all over Michigan, leaving her truly smitten with the mitten. She received her degrees in journalism and professional communications and provides coverage for various publications locally, regionally, and nationally — writing stories on small businesses, arts and culture, dining, community, and anything Michigan-made. You can find her in a record shop, a local concert, or eating one too many desserts at a bakery. If by chance, she’s not at any of those places, you can contact her at