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BizCast 57: Learning Life Skills with Junior Achievement & Susan Peterson

Susan Peterson Ima

Episode 57

Learning Life Skills with Junior Achievement and Susan Peterson

About BizCast Greater La Crosse

We bring you news from the business community. From startups to experienced problem solvers, you’ll get in-depth insight on the challenges and opportunities of doing business in Greater La Crosse. Our show is a collaboration between and BizNews Greater La Crosse ( ).


Teaching students life skills from elementary, middle, high school and now 18-24 year olds is the mission of Junior Achievement of Wisconsin (JA). They focus on financial literacy and work readiness programs for students. Susan Peterson, the Regional Director for JA of the Coulee Region joins BizCast Greater La Crosse Host Vicki Markussen to talk about balancing a checkbook, understanding debt, running a business, shaking a hand, cell phone etiquette. These are all skills to be successful in life. Junior Achievement of Wisconsin is teaching these skills in our schools with help from more than 120 volunteers. 

She also highlights a May 2 event at UW-La Crosse, and the group is always searching for volunteers. For more information, check it out at

Full Transcript [generated by AI]

[00:00:00] Susan Peterson: they’re trying to get the students. Before they get in trouble where they can plan for their tuition or they get that financial information, you only use X amount. You also have to maybe get a job and then how do you budget that? They want to also, make sure students are able to afford it. 

[00:00:20] Vicki Markussen: Welcome to BizCast, Greater La Crosse, a weekly podcast from BizNews. We bring you news from the business community. I am your host and founder, Vicki Markussen. And joining me today is Susan Peterson. She is the Regional Director of Junior Achievement of Wisconsin, particularly for the North and West Central region.

[00:00:39] Vicki Markussen: So welcome, Susan. You cover a wide area, but I think we have to start with some 101s for people who are not familiar with Junior Achievement. What does Junior Achievement do? 

[00:00:50] Susan Peterson: Junior Achievement goes into our schools, and what our goal is to reach as many youth as we can.

[00:00:56] Susan Peterson: K 12 is where we started. It started in 1919, years and years ago, and in the state of Wisconsin, 1941. But we’re the oldest. I would say non profit economic organization out there. And we go into our schools with a business leader or a community member who teaches our curriculum on financial literacy, work readiness, and entrepreneurship.

[00:01:20] Susan Peterson: And we’re really trying to give students a leg up and to be able to own their economic future. Success and be able to have wellness opportunities out there. And being able to take advantage of the skills that we provide with real world experience volunteers. 

[00:01:38] Vicki Markussen: And when you say you’re going into the schools, is this a one-time class?

[00:01:42] Vicki Markussen: Is this a weekly class? What does that look like? 

[00:01:44] Susan Peterson: That has definitely evolved over my years here with Junior Achievement, so our traditional model, and it’s still happening today with a number of our volunteers in our elementary schools from 2nd through 5th grade, we run in a lot of our local schools in the Coulee area, and we go in, it’s usually about a 40 minute visit once a week for about 5 weeks.

[00:02:06] Susan Peterson: Sometimes the teachers like to run it all in a week. It, it’s up to that volunteer and that teacher. And they’re learning the different things about how a city is built. They’re learning about voting. They’re learning about wants versus needs. They’re learning about how money moves through a community.

[00:02:21] Susan Peterson: And the different jobs that are in the community. And how a business works. There are a lot of hands on activities for our elementary, so that’s what’s great about that is just the hands on skills and activities and the engaging parts and pieces. But all again, it’s all focused on there’s financial literacy in there and also that career exploration.

[00:02:42] Susan Peterson: And now what we’re seeing a lot in our middle and high school is we’re running what we call a day in the day. So this can be a four to six hour experience. We do a career fair, highlighting all the different career pathways, careers that are out there. And then we have lessons on soft skills. So when I talk about soft skills, about how to communicate, about resume building, about how to navigate difficult conversations how to use a cell phone, all those different topics that are out there on, on our soft skills.

[00:03:19] Susan Peterson: Skills application. And then also we have career speakers. And lastly there’s also the high school aspect of it. And within high school we have competition. So competition simulations. And those can, they can come in once a week to do something like that, that will culminate in an event. So it takes a lot of different aspects.

[00:03:39] Susan Peterson: I will say. We used to be more in the box of here’s the program and you run it, and now we’ve become very nimble and we try to work with the teachers of what works for them. We’re there to enhance what they’re doing and to be able to provide that additional curriculum and information. 

[00:03:57] Vicki Markussen: We’ll get back to the great work that you’re doing there, but I want to make sure we touch on the event that you have coming up in May.

[00:04:05] Susan Peterson: We have an event in May, and we have partnered with 21 for more than a decade now with Jim Nowlitz Group. There are a number of executives in the local area who meet once a month and they discuss a lot of challenging topics. But they bring in a national team. speaker from their circuit and training and then we receive the beneficiary funds that will go towards directly to our program.

[00:04:31] Susan Peterson: This is a morning breakfast at the Bluffs at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse Student Union from 7. 30 to 9. 30. We have Eddie LeMoulin he’s a Canadian speaker, nationally known. He has a book out there, Bring About What You Think About, but really focused on helping individuals work on their leadership skills or come up with some practical strategies to help their staff, a true kind of revolutionize different ways that they can work to become a better professional and a motivational speaker in turn, too.

[00:05:03] Susan Peterson: So it’s great to have him. And then TrustPoint is another sponsor for that, as well as BMO, who’s been great. Great supporters for JA. But I will say one other aspect that we get to acknowledge is our wonderful volunteers. We are giving a lifetime award to his name is Peter Petersley. He has been teaching JA for so many years.

[00:05:22] Susan Peterson: I think he’s taught more than a hundred classes for Junior Achievement. I can’t even tell you what a value he has been and loved by our teachers in our elementary classroom. So it’s great to recognize him along with our Our partners who volunteer, have volunteers in so many of our schools and our collaborators that are out there, along with a Teacher of the Year from Onalaska, so we are very excited for this opportunity this year and being able to have this event.

[00:05:51] Vicki Markussen: And this isn’t the only event that you do for adults, correct? 

[00:05:55] Susan Peterson: Yeah, correct. We just had an event in February. And it was our second year of going with it, but we took the student event that just happened at Western and we basically are offering it to adults called it’s called the Executive Business Challenge.

[00:06:11] Susan Peterson: So the Adults are actually competing in a online business simulation called Titan. And this J, Titan, what’s great about it is it’s an online simulation. You’re competing with other teams and it’s a cell phone company, but you have to set how much you’re going to put in production, how much you’re going to put in marketing, how much you’re going to put in your staffing, how happy you’re going to make them.

[00:06:31] Susan Peterson: The goal is to essentially have these quarters and fill the space. So you will hopefully have a successful year and not go bankrupt. And that’s what will happen to some students because it is fast paced with that decision making. And this year’s first place team was a team from Kwik Trip and second place came from a team from WNB.

[00:06:52] Susan Peterson: It was a fun evening, a night of networking, and something different than , your average business after hours. So it was an engaging way for team building, and that’s what some of our employers use it for, is a team building activity for their employees. 

[00:07:05] Vicki Markussen: Yeah, it’s great experience for people to have that aren’t used to making those type of decisions within a business.

[00:07:12] Vicki Markussen: They, I’m sure, walk away with a better understanding. It’s interesting as you were talking about junior achievement and the financial literacy and just some of this that you do, and I think a lot of us older people remember that a lot of the stuff you learned in class, right? For me, it was home ec, and you, but you’d learn how to balance your, or economics was balancing your checkbook.

[00:07:35] Vicki Markussen: And it was a lot of those life skills that were taught in schools that, that we’ve seen. Hey, where did that go? And so is junior achievement a little bit of that missing piece? 

[00:07:46] Susan Peterson: Yes, so junior achievement is a missing piece, and now, by the year, By 2028 our governor signed into law, the law that’s mandated in our schools.

[00:07:56] Susan Peterson: So the graduate graduates of 2028 will have to have a class, a required course. For financial literacy. Still in many of our schools, it’s an elective program. My daughter is a senior and it was elective. And I tried to get her to take it, but she did not take it. That’s 

[00:08:12] Vicki Markussen: right. When there’s other fun choices, why not, right?

[00:08:16] Vicki Markussen: I know, right. 

[00:08:18] Susan Peterson: But it is essential for our students because we’re also moving now into that 18 25 age group of starting to how we can help them. And in my conversations with some of our postsecondary organizations, they are offering some adulting 101 classes and some essentially financial literacy courses to help students.

[00:08:41] Susan Peterson: So they can stay in school, be able to pay for it. They are not coming into that post secondary life or world of work with that knowledge. And we want them to be successful and not have horrible credits. 

[00:08:54] Vicki Markussen: Of course, I mean, that is obviously that creates a whole other complication as you’re trying to be a great worker or employees are trying to keep people and there’s other complications happening there.

[00:09:04] Vicki Markussen: So that’s a good opportunity to talk about junior achievement and how, you’ve been there, we were saying 16 years, which is fantastic. How have you seen junior achievement change? And that could be either it. What it’s teaching, as well as how it’s received out in the community, with workforce being so scarce.

[00:09:26] Susan Peterson: Yeah, I will say the Loudly, it is really evolved into requesting for that work and career readiness less. So, we were very heavy elementary, and that’s still really important. But we are seeing an increased need for providing this information and bringing those volunteers in for middle to high school.

[00:09:52] Susan Peterson: And middle school is a very key part. Essentially by the age of 14, a student will already have those habits already set into motion for their study habits, for homework. So you want to be able to reach those students at that age and show them the opportunities for apprenticeships. Show them the opportunities that are out there in our community, because the goal, of course, as our businesses will say, we want them to live, work here, and to grow here.

[00:10:21] Susan Peterson: And so why JA is so key in this area, we can bring, a lot of times in our day to day, I’m bringing over 25 different businesses To be able to offer this opportunity. So we’re able to show all these different career areas and it can go from the tech field it can go from, financial and the art.

[00:10:43] Susan Peterson: So we’re really trying to show the whole gamut of the different opportunities that are out there. So we’ve been really seeing that, that evolve in that arena and area, and a lot of requests for career. Um. Because again, in high school, trying to help students have what would have I done in school or what do you suggest, as far as making sure that they’re taking the right classes to be able to move on either to their post secondary work or otherwise go straight to work, because that is an option that we’re seeing a lot of students look at as technical school, or there’s also dual enrollment is what they call it, but being able to have the options.

[00:11:23] Susan Peterson: And I don’t remember as a young person having all these opportunities in front of us. And I think what we’re trying to do is really give students a leg up and have that knowledge to get to the workplace faster, to be able to know how to be a good employee. to show up on time to, know how to communicate without their cell phone.

[00:11:45] Susan Peterson: So we’re really trying to enhance that with a lot of our curriculum. 

[00:11:49] Vicki Markussen: Yeah, it was interesting. You just sparked something that I had heard at a conference this week, which was, as baby boomers have retired, you now have the millennials on a fast track because they are all of a sudden finding themselves in senior management positions.

[00:12:04] Vicki Markussen: And so they have to. get that skill set very quickly and much faster than the rest of us have experienced. And so obviously starting early is important. And, I do remember my kids in junior achievement in the elementary schools. And it seems like now they’re the middle school program, the high school, and now the 18 to 25 year olds, like, what?

[00:12:28] Vicki Markussen: What time span did that develop within? It seems very recent. 

[00:12:33] Susan Peterson: I would definitely say the last five, ten years has changed, and I think that was the heighten of the shortage of the workforce, more and more people going into retirement being able to keep our employees in our communities so they don’t leave for another big city and after they go to school, that we want them to also find that.

[00:12:54] Susan Peterson: job or opportunity here. And I think also, when you think of the young person and being able to expose them to a business if it would be Inland or Gillette Pepsi, but being able to expose them to what do they do there? Because you drive past it every day and you don’t really know.

[00:13:12] Susan Peterson: And so I think that is the. It’s very key because so many of us and our young people really don’t know all the different job opportunities that are out there and you can be in HR at a business that is a manufacturer. You can, you can be in graphic design also at a manufacturer, so there are a lot of options within one business.

[00:13:32] Vicki Markussen: Absolutely. And so as you’ve moved from elementary school to middle to high school to early adult, I’m guessing the quantity of volunteers that you need has grown as well. And what does that commitment look like? 

[00:13:48] Susan Peterson: Yeah, I will say It grew, but it shrank, what the challenge is the re engagement past COVID.

[00:13:57] Susan Peterson: People, they went home to work, they were working more remotely, they were not volunteering as much. Those last two years, that’s been our biggest challenge and our biggest need is volunteers, of course, along with funding. But, just re engaging these affinity groups. And those people who do volunteer time off, I know we’re seeing a lot of resurgence and redoing a lot of those a lot of your benefit packages to include eight hours of VTO time, or to allow your employees to have that flexibility to be able to volunteer.

[00:14:31] Susan Peterson: We are seeing that more work life balance offering, but then it’s not as much of a Just how do you get in front of those young people, and how do you get them to want to say yes to go into a classroom? So that’s probably the biggest challenge, and then making sure they’re the right fit. Sometimes individuals are nervous about going into a high school classroom versus in an elementary classroom.

[00:14:55] Susan Peterson: So we try to encourage, you can co teach with somebody, or you can go watch somebody first before you go in and do it yourself. And so We’re trying to form some different ideas and partnerships and ways to engage people to step up and step in. We work with about 120 volunteers a year in the Coulee region, and some of them teach multiple classes, which is wonderful, but there’s so much more that we could be doing, and the need for volunteers is great.

[00:15:25] Vicki Markussen: And what kind of testimonials, like you said Peter Petersley, who I can picture right now and what is his drive, do you think? What does he get out of it? 

[00:15:37] Susan Peterson: Some different things than the stories that he’s told. So Peter is, I don’t know, he’s just a very unique individual and he lives and breathes.

[00:15:45] Susan Peterson: So he’ll teach a second grade class or a third grade class. He matches his tie for every lesson. But one important thing is he’s doing soft skills while he’s teaching about how a city is built. He’ll make students when they at the end and they come up and get their certificates, shake their hand and he’ll teach them the proper handshake.

[00:16:05] Susan Peterson: He’ll make students. That, that’s one thing that he’s just really good at is making sure that they’re looking at him when they’re talking and being able to engage those students and in communication. And so he, his passion, and I know that the teachers have said this too, is just he’s very vested in our youth and making sure that they have the skills that they need no matter who they are.

[00:16:29] Susan Peterson: And that’s what’s great about JA and why I’ve been so mission driven about it is that we’re reaching every student. If it would be in that classroom, or if it’s in that grade level who are participating in it. We’re, it’s not just for this group and that group, so we’re reaching every student.

[00:16:44] Susan Peterson: It’s very inclusive, and we are trying to meet students where they’re at. This year, what was the, Super exciting, too. In Arcadia we did our first all Spanish class. So a lot of our curriculum is also being rewritten into Spanish, which has been great because, they have students that are moving in and out often, and being able to offer some of these soft skill lessons is called J is My Future to these students.

[00:17:10] Susan Peterson: What’s super key and being able to give them examples of different jobs that are out there, but doing it in the language that they understand at that time. Those are some of the different and unique things and you’ll hear from volunteers who just continue to do it again and again, and it does come, if you can make a difference in that one student’s life and you see that difference, I, that brings you back again and again.

[00:17:31] Susan Peterson: And once you’ve done it once I know you’ll do it again and again. And so That’s to me what drives us is what you get out of it, we’re all busy in life, but, if you can give 45 minutes or 4 hours for an event it can make a big difference. 

[00:17:48] Vicki Markussen: And I hear so often about companies being short of workers and talking to them about career pipelines, right?

[00:17:57] Vicki Markussen: So you have to start at an early age to start to have those conversations about the careers that you want people, kids to go into. And so it seems logical that you would have a ton of HR people saying, ah, we need to start raising awareness about our companies in schools. And so just volunteering through JA seems very logical.

[00:18:16] Vicki Markussen: Is there, or do the volunteers seem to have some logical connection to a business or it’s just out of love for teaching or any common thread there? 

[00:18:25] Susan Peterson: Yeah, so we do definitely look for individuals, especially on this topic those in the HR realm working with the SHRM group, working with your service groups out there there are, there’s definite alignment but it does, you don’t have to be an individual working in business.

[00:18:42] Susan Peterson: You could be a parent at home because you’ve had real life experience in a job, and I think that’s what’s key, is that you are bringing that real life experience from your life, and that’s what we want to hear. And a lot of times, elementary schools, you do align with the parents. Parents will want to come in and teach, but the primary and middle school, they don’t always want the parents.

[00:19:05] Susan Peterson: Finding that right individual, but we have a general manager from Shields, who is about teaching youth, because he helps hire so many high school students and college students. And I, and that’s what drives him. He’s thrilled to be working with high school students. And there’s some things that just They serve that passion of what they see the need for, and they will continue.

[00:19:29] Susan Peterson: We’re always out there working with our business groups and then those that have a part of their mission, as far as Ultra Federal Credit Union and Marine Credit Union it’s part of their mission to give back, and that’s They want their employees to get out and be in our community.

[00:19:45] Susan Peterson: When it aligns with their business mission, it’s very helpful. 

[00:19:48] Vicki Markussen: You’re delving into the 18 to 25 year olds.

[00:19:51] Vicki Markussen: And one of the things that you said is even at that age, the financial literacy teaching is critical. Can you explain why that is important at that age? 

[00:20:02] Susan Peterson: Yes. To do is definitely grow within in our height and make sure that every youth has the understanding of what credit is, what investing is. What how to create a budget especially also when you think about this, we’re doing a STEM camp about cars. And so many of us, it’s required to have car insurance.

[00:20:26] Susan Peterson: You have to pay for car insurance, and a car loan and all those key things that you have to do and we have to do in life. It’s. It’s critical, I think, within high school, and then as you move on, and if you haven’t had any of that conversation at home, which often is the case, we we as parents or individuals, adults, don’t always talk about this with our kids.

[00:20:47] Susan Peterson: And there’s that check card and money just shows up there. And, having them understand, because it’s so transparent these days, you’re not always going into the bank or the credit union, and they need to understand where that’s coming from and where that goes. And we are seeing all, As I was saying, we are seeing some of those courses being offered at, at college and also maybe at your technical school or seminars that are needed.

[00:21:10] Susan Peterson: I just presented to my board and I heard from board members who said, man, I really could use this with my staff. And I think we’re seeing that with corporate, they want retention, they want to retain their employees, but sometimes they need that financial guidance and help because they don’t have it.

[00:21:27] Susan Peterson: Can they provide a class at work to be able to help those employees stay retained and work with their money and funds? 

[00:21:35] Vicki Markussen: Yeah, and I would imagine the schools are particularly colleges and universities are interested in it as well because it’s so easy to get credit and to abuse it and then that has a ripple effect and so have you also seen the schools embrace this?

[00:21:54] Susan Peterson: Oh, yeah, and that’s what we’re meeting with UWO Mental Aid Department, because they are wanting to create a required course or classes to be able to require students because they get students when they’re in dire need and they can’t pay for school. And so these students then drop out because they can’t pay and it’s not soon enough.

[00:22:21] Susan Peterson: So they’re trying to get the students. Before they get in trouble where they can plan for their tuition and know when they get their FAFSA information or they get that financial information, you only use X amount. You also have to maybe get a job and then how do you budget that? So they’re really trying to meet with students where they’re at because they want to also, make sure students are able to afford it.

[00:22:45] Susan Peterson: A lot of our, also our UW Stout at another conversation, they’re meeting one on one with students because. They like, they don’t want to attend a big group, but they have a lot of concerns and issues when it comes to finances as far as paying for rent, your roommate, different things like that, and just having a recent conversation with a colleague who still has a loan and she’s 49.

[00:23:08] Susan Peterson: Wow. And she still has a school loan that she’s paying off of. And so it just goes to, and just think about the credit there. There’s so many topics that are so key and important, and if we can help provide some of that curriculum and volunteers to be able to provide that it’s great.

[00:23:25] Susan Peterson: It’s so important today. 

[00:23:28] Vicki Markussen: Absolutely. So my common closer question is what makes you passionate about what you do?

[00:23:36] Susan Peterson: Oh, let me pass them. I have two step kids and I have two, two daughters and one is in college right now. And one is going to be going on to school. And I think I’m passionate because. I wanted to do all I could to help set my kids up for success. And I, and when you go into schools sometimes, and I’ve taught JA, and you know some of those students, They might not have a great home life.

[00:24:06] Susan Peterson: You might be their only positive individual that’s coming in to share some of this knowledge today and to have that great feedback. And so being able to provide maybe some piece of knowledge and some information that they can utilize to help them in their future, I think is very important. Just so important.

[00:24:28] Susan Peterson: And then just also watching the excitement in individuals when we have the student competition this week. And there were three teams going, or a couple weeks ago, three teams in high school going back and forth. And just that excitement between the mentor, because we have our business mentors, and those students.

[00:24:45] Susan Peterson: And that conversation with different ages and how important that is to be able to, a teen, to be able to have really great conversations with an adult and how that can help them in their future. And I just think we’re setting up our students for that. For opportunities and for success and that’s what I’m passionate about and serving and I’m, I’ve just always been a very passionate individual about serving and serving our youth.

[00:25:10] Susan Peterson: They are our future and I think it’s the world is bright and sometimes there’s so much negativity out there that we do have some really great youth who can, I’m proud of like my own kids. They can think on their own and I let them solve problems on their own. They have to fail, I’m not there to pick them up all the time.

[00:25:28] Susan Peterson: And if they can figure that out, I think that’s great. So I’m just passionate because I just love our youth and whatever I can do to serve. 

[00:25:36] Vicki Markussen: And you’re teaching lifelong skills that will help them forever, which is remarkable. I want to give you time to talk about one more time again, just to plug your your May 2nd event.

[00:25:47] Vicki Markussen: So when is it and where can people get tickets? 

[00:25:50] Susan Peterson: The event is again on May 2nd, and it is at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse Student Union, and it is from 7. 30 a. m. to 9. 30 p. m., and they can get tickets by contacting me directly, and I can give them information. My cell phone number is 608 219 3774.

[00:26:12] Susan Peterson: Otherwise it’s out there on our Facebook and on our LinkedIn. So search for Junior Achievement of Wisconsin Coulee Region to be able to get that link and we can put you in touch with that. And so it’s Eddie Lamone and it’s a motivational speak speaker, and it’s 50 to attend. So it’s a great opportunity to be able to come.

[00:26:32] Susan Peterson: And we have about 150 attendees right now and looking to hopefully have 200. 

[00:26:38] Vicki Markussen: Excellent. You’ve been listening to BizCast, Greater La Crosse. That was Susan Peterson, the Regional Director of Junior Achievement of Wisconsin for the North and West Central Region. We will catch you next week.



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