This article was published in the Lenoir News-Topic.

Rodney Epley wants to major in electronics engineering at N.C. State. His dream, his first choice, is to work for Google.

Sierra McCall wants to attend Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute. After that, she wants to work at Frye Regional Medical Center or Caldwell Memorial Hospital as a cardiac sonographer.

Right now, though, they’re just high school students – Rodney at West Caldwell High, Sierra at Hibriten. There are still stretches of time, education and work between them and their goals.On Monday, they were handed a few tools to use along the way.

Students from high schools around the county came to the J.E. Broyhill Civic Center Monday for a leadership conference hosted by the Caldwell County Schools’ Career and Technical Education department. Each had been recognized as a potential leader by an instructor.

Dressed in their business-casual best, students practiced picking up the right fork first. They talked about all the shifting priorities you have to keep in mind when selecting a career – your abilities, your personality and the things you value most, be it money or schedule or prestige.

They learned how to take what you already enjoy and turn it into a career, and about the tenuous balance between happiness and success.

Questions and advice floated through the rooms – what to do if someone asks you to pass the salt, whether it’s OK to answer your cellphone at work.

The day ended with something that could well become a staple of these students’ professional lives, should they choose to stay in Caldwell County: a civic-center buffet, complete with clinking tea glasses and salad lettuce sliding through ranch dressing as the people seated around each table mingled and made introductions.

After lunch, Deborah Murray, executive director of the Caldwell County Economic Development Commission, spoke to the students about all the ways a career winds and changes.

Murray addressed them as a group of students who will, in six years, be parents or graduate students or young professionals in their first or second jobs. They are a group that, on average, will cycle through 14 jobs over the course of their careers – a group that, for now, is in a safe space to explore.

You often wind up where you thought you’d start, she told them, but there’s a lot more in between.

At the civic center on Monday, Rodney Epley learned how to eat and speak and act at a formal event. Sierra McCall learned what traits employers want most – from ethical decision-making to working a solid eight-hour day, no wasted time.

And then they left, ready to take a few more of the tiny steps that will get them where they’re going.