PEARL ― Spend some time with Sunny Brownlee and it’s easy to see why she is the Mississippi Construction Education Foundation’s choice for the President’s Hard Hat Outstanding Counselor of the Year award.

Not only is the student services counselor at the Lowndes County Career and Technology Center shepherding students through the educational obstacles of high school, she is raising the bar for school-to-career guidance across Mississippi.

During her 20-year career as an educator, Brownlee has influenced literally hundreds of students to pursue stable, rewarding professions in construction, manufacturing and other skilled trades. It’s a commitment she ties directly to Mississippi’s demand for more than 80,000 craft professionals by 2019.

“Career and technical education is the best thing going for Mississippi,” Brownlee said in accepting her award at this week’s Mississippi Counseling Association’s Fall Conference in Biloxi. “More than 60 percent of our future jobs will require a skill. That translates into tremendous opportunities for our students and our state.”

Brownlee spends her jam-packed days instructing, encouraging and collaborating with students, teachers and community leaders. Through partnerships with areas industries, she leads multiple initiatives designed to equip students with stronger work ethics, time management skills and enhanced problem-solving abilities.

“Sunny’s drive to make a difference is second to none,” said MCEF president Mike Barkett in presenting the award to Brownlee. “To be recognized as counselor of the year is evidence of her effectiveness and hard work to create a culture that fosters growth, learning and excellence.”

Barkett noted that fewer students are participating in career and technical education because many parents and educators are steering them toward a college pathway rather than a vocational route. MCEF is working with Brownlee and her peers to ensure students are aware of career opportunities in construction and other growing industries.

“Statistics prove that the college degree path isn’t the answer for many students, yet America’s education model continues pushing them in that direction,” said Barkett. “Adding CTE programs to the mix diversifies the career options available to students after they graduate and leads to more positive outcomes. CTE gives students a tangible goal to strive for, and in the vast majority of cases, it ends up being a sound investment in the long run.”

To that end, Brownlee is currently partnering with The FORGE Foundation (Family Organizations Recruiting Great Employees) to pilot an initiative that utilizes a non-traditional approach to prepare CTE students for the job market. Dubbed Soft Skills University, the course goes beyond the normal vocational curriculum, emphasizing skills such as interviewing, communication, and dressing for success.

Expressing appreciation to be part of a statewide team that is addressing the important issues of the day, Brownlee said she is hopeful her efforts will lead to a stronger workforce for the future.

“I am thrilled to receive this recognition for our workplace practices,” she said. “If I somehow manage to have some degree of success in my career, that is a part of all the other people who have invested in my little world. It’s not what I have done. It’s how all of us have contributed in some small way.”

MCEF is a non-profit educational foundation that provides NCCER craft training and credentialing in more than 100 career and technical programs across the state. The foundation’s mission is to train individuals for the construction and manufacturing industries in Mississippi.

MCEF also offers workforce training and credentialing in construction, industrial maintenance and manufacturing trades.