The trading relationship involving hundreds of billions of dollars in imports and exports between the United States and China is hard to grasp, but it hasn't deterred 36 high school students from Wallingford and Shanghai who gathered in Connecticut to study global trade.
Junior Achievement, a nonprofit youth organization that educates students about workforce, business and financial issues, brought the students together in Connecticut this week to learn about global trade, hear presentations about business ventures and learn about U.S. business.
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Public officials, schools and business advocates are pushing trade education to youngsters as global ties in commerce become increasingly important to national economies, driving job growth and investment.
"They're our future exporters," said Anne Evans, district director in Connecticut for the U.S. Department of Commerce. "These students need to learn global trade earlier."
Connecticut and Chinese students met at the Capitol on Monday, the first day of a week of activities that included a visit to Otis elevator's test site in Bristol and developing business plans that will be used during the next school year to sell and trade products. They had more in common than they may have realized: Not surprisingly for teens, they don't yet know their career path, though they have an interest in economics and business.
"I'm not sure what I'm going to do," said Linus Koepfer, a high school student in Wallingford. "I'm exploring."
"I have no idea yet," 16-year-old Helen Pan said when asked if she knows her career path.
Salvatore F. Menzo, schools superintendent at Wallingford, said the program not only teaches youngsters about business, but also presents broader lessons in collaboration and understanding other cultures.
"These kids will be changed forever," he said.
Plans are for Wallingford students to travel to China next year, the second trip since 2014. The school district also has a business incubator and offers entrepreneurial classes.
Lou Golden, president of JA Of Southwest New England, said the China exchange program could be the most ambitious for Junior Achievement. It began in 1919 and early on helped youngsters make the transition from an agricultural society to an industrial economy.
Teaching about trade reflects the rising importance of global ties. Exports and imports accounted for 30 percent of all products and services in 2013, with exports supporting 11.3 million jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
China as a market for U.S. exports posted the highest dollar growth in 2013 over the previous year, up more than $11 billion and accounting for nearly $122 billion. Canada was the top export market, at nearly $302 billion.
Educators said it is important for students to understand their place in a global economy.
Tim Reinhardt, who teaches U.S. history and economics at Hudson High School in Massachusetts, said his lessons include a darker side of trade, such as cheap labor in developing nations. He uses a large world map with countries tagged by the students showing the origin of clothing they own.
"It gets them to understand how important trade is to them," Reinhardt said.
Josh Otlin, an assistant principal at Hudson and a former social studies teacher, said students "immediately recognize" that the course is not abstract.
"In terms of personal job prospects, they have a stake in what happens in international trade," he said. "It will have a lot of bearing on issues of environmental consequence. Many students care a lot about development issues, poverty and justice."
Koepfer knows he has a stake in the economy. He said he hopes it will be stronger in the next few years after he completes high school and college and looks for work.
"It better be," he said.