These days, graduating high school, college or technical school is only half the battle.
Students in Catawba County schools must work harder than ever to give them an edge over the millions of other newly graduated students and displaced workers trying to enter the workforce.
Specialized classes for high schoolers, however, allow students to obtain state-recognized certification during classroom hours. The schooling is of no cost to students and gives them the skills necessary to capture the attention of a potential employer — whether its immediately after high school or a few years down the road.
Newton-Conover City Schools and Catawba County Schools offer a Certified Nursing Assistant program for high school seniors. Students who want to earn a nursing degree are required to become a CNA, so the certification programs offered through the schools allow them to get a head start on future requirements while earning their high school diplomas.
"It certainly helps (students), because it gives them an extra hand to get into nursing programs," said Catawba County Schools Career and Technical Education director Karen Cale. "That's one of the things that they earn points for."
CNA duties vary depending on location, but can include daily care for patients, such as bathing, dressing, toileting and measuring vital signs.
Once students earn their CNA certification, they can work at nursing homes, hospitals or other care facilities, which means CNA students have the potential to earn money immediately after high school.
That's the plan for Newton-Conover High School senior and CNA student Tionne Coulter.
"In college, I want to work as a CNA," said Coulter, who plans to attend the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. "It'll help me with my skills."
According to several websites, CNAs earn about $9.75 an hour, which is more than $2 above the minimum wage in North Carolina.
Newton-Conover High School CNA program instructor Chrissy Aronis has been at the school for four years, and during that time, she's seen the CNA program's enrollment double.
"It's a step up for students, and they've got that experience," Aronis said. "They can go to any facility that needs CNAs and work."
Students take their CNA-certification exams after undergoing classroom learning, as well as hands-on experience in the medical community. Cale said CCS' five high schools are testing locations for the CNA certification, which means students don't have to travel in order to take the exam.
CCS' CNA classes are part of the system's allied health programs, and all of the system's five high schools have an allied health program.
With an uncertain job forecast, students within CNA programs throughout the country are grateful for an opportunity to further their career — even before they leave high school.
"It basically guarantees you a future," said CNA student Mahogany Jenkins. "There's always going to be a need for nurses."