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Showing them a way to stay

Randy Jahnke of Employment Resource Center Inc. in Wadena explained his technique to members of Central Minnesota CEO after delivering a pitch to Edward Jones Financial Advisor Cory Oehlke. Juniors and seniors from the communities of Wadena, Deer Creek, Verndale, Staples and Motley made up the Creating Entrepreneural Opportunities (CEO) group that assembled in Oelhke's office for the practical application of Jahnke's work. (Photo by Brian Hansel/Pioneer Journal)

Bowing to a colorful belief from the 19th Century they must learn to "paddle their own canoe," a group of high school students from four area communities has been voyaging through in the business world.

Cindi Koll and her Central Minnesota CEO (Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities) group recently looked in on Randy Jahnke at Employment Resource Center in Wadena.

Jahnke steers people at jobs and jobs at people. To demonstrate what he does to the group, Jahnke took the students across Jefferson Street on a rainy Thursday morning last week to the Edward Jones Investment office run by Financial Advisor Cory Oehlke.

In the confines of Oehlke's office, introductions gave way to questions and answers on the part of both men. Jahnke emphasized brevity when throwing questions at Oehlke about the employment needs of his office. Oehlke was equally brief about the requirements for a job opening and practical in asking Jahnke about what the Employment Resource Center expected out of the arrangement.

"It was very impressive for the students because they had no idea a service like that existed in the area," Koll said.

Koll's group was established two years ago and their main job is to look, listen and learn.

"We just tour what our local communities have to offer," Koll said.

The group does not have to complete worksheets or take tests, but Koll does ask them for essays. She wants to know what their thoughts are about the businesses they explore.

Some other businesses the group has visited include Homecrest Outdoor Living, Greiman Printing and Office Supplies and Kal's Cars in Wadena; Stern Rubber, McKechnie Tooling, the Staples World and Lakewood Health System in Staples, Morey's Fish House in Motley and Syvantis Technologies in Baxter.

The group meets two days a week and either tours a business or listens to a speaker. At of the third week of April, Central Minnesota CEO had visited 40 businesses and listened to 28 guest speakers.

Funding for the project, which began not in a school but as an economic development program, comes from 17 investing companies. A board of 10 individuals raises money for the group. Wadena-Deer Creek Superintendent Lee Westrum is a member of the board, and he is enthusiastic about the concept.

"CEO doesn't cost schools a dime," Westrum said. "It's just a fantastic program. It's very non-traditional. They never meet at a school, they always meet at a business."

CEO members are high school seniors and juniors who have to carve CEO into their daily schedule of classes and other activities.

"They have to be internally motivated," Koll said. "They have to be willing to take a risk. They are taking a risk that a lot of their peers are not."

In addition to operating businesses of their own, such as selling dogs, luggage tags and bird seed treats, renting chickens and chicken coops, and offering cello lessons, the students in CEO are exposed to a learning experience others may not encounter until they are out of school - the importance of dependability, dress and courtesy.

"This is very authentic," Westrum said. "It's real hands-on learning for the kids."

The whole idea behind CEO is to introduce to the job and business possibilities in central Minnesota.

"Small, rural communities want to keep their kids in the community instead of having them go off to the big cities," Westrum said. "The whole hope is that they can stay right here. We have to help give them the tools to help them live here."

The group will wrap up their activities May 15 with a Trade Fair at Maasconi's in Verndale.