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Businesses, schools partner to develop workers

Chip Ellis
Dewey Ponthieu, who teaches the manufacturing curriculum at Ben Franklin Career and Technical Center, works with Adam Kelly and Andrew Britton on electrical testers and multi meters. The West Virginia Manufacturers Association designed the curriculum to hopefully increase the number of skilled employees they find to hire.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Saying their members can't find qualified workers, the West Virginia Manufacturers Association has developed a curriculum for high school students emphasizing math and science skills.

"We have a skill shortage not just in West Virginia, but all over the country," said Karen Price, the group's president.

Employers "have reached a crisis" because they can't find employees that have a work ethic and specific skill sets to hire, according to Kathy D'Antoni, assistant state superintendent of career and technical education.

"If not for all the retirements we probably wouldn't have heard anything about this," said D'Antoni, referring to baby boomers approaching retirement age. "It's something we should have done before now."

In Putnam County, where test scores prove students are academically strong, teachers are beginning to stress "soft skills," such as promptness and work ethic to students at all grade levels, which business leaders have said employees are missing.

Plans to expand career and technical facilities around the state, most of which already have full class sizes, and to increase awareness about their programs to middle school aged students and perhaps even elementary students, are in the works, according to D'Antoni.

"Our whole economy has changed. All the good paying, quality jobs are now skill based - technicians, people with certifications -- industries are crying out for people," she said.

Members of the manufacturers association approached the state Department of Education about two years ago to discuss what skills they've noticed job applicants and new hires are lacking.

"About six or eight of my plant managers sat down over a couple days discussing what skills they thought kids graduating from high school should have so they could get jobs at the facilities," Price said.

The association and the department of education came up with a manufacturing pathway, focused on math and science, safety and a combination of other technical skills. Ben Franklin Career and Technical Center in Dunbar and Randolph County Technical Center are the only two schools offering the curriculum now, but Price said it's available to any school that chooses to adopt it.

Dewey Ponphieu, who teaches the manufacturing program at Ben Franklin, said students struggle with math because they don't believe they'd ever need to use the skills.

"That's what we teach and emphasize here," he said. "We teach the math that goes along with the careers. At a tech school you discover what it's used for."

Ben Franklin has about 16 students participating in the manufacturing program that began at the school in January, according to Principal Paula Potter. The school is in the process of adding robotics courses into the manufacturing curriculum, she said.

The challenge Potter and Ponphieu face at Ben Franklin is getting students and parents to realize attending a career and technical school doesn't have to be an alternative to college.

"Unfortunately many people have the perception that career schools are for students not going to college and that's not the case now," Potter said "Students that attend career schools earn free college hours that transfer to [community and technical colleges] or four year university programs."

The manufacturing pathway, D'Antoni said, offers courses in machine tooling, drafting, welding, problem solving, critical thinking and technical writing, among others. Students acquire skills at tech schools that can land them good-paying jobs and make paying for college affordable, according to Potter.

"A technical school doesn't limit opportunities it expands them," Ponphieu said. "A welder makes a lot of money. Someone who can trouble shoot hydraulic systems can make a lot of money."

Recently, Potter said, the owner of a heating and cooling business spoke to school officials about his experience in the technical industry.

"He said his dad made him learn a trade before he went to school to become a banker. All the way through college he worked in HVAC and paid his way through school. When he graduated, he realized he'd be taking a pay cut to become a banker," she said.

For some, college is not the answer, according to D'Antoni, who said the overwhelming expectation to go on to college is partly to blame for the shortage of skilled employees. There's a misconception that the only way to get a good-paying job is with a college degree, she said.

"In the 1950s and '60s not nearly as many people were going to college and about 20 percent of jobs required a four-year degree," she said. "Unskilled jobs made up about 60 percent."

Today, the percentage of jobs available for college graduates remains at 20 percent, she said, but the number of college graduates trying to get those jobs has increased dramatically.

"There are 350 manufacturing jobs [in West Virginia] that could be filled tomorrow if employees had the right skill sets," D'Antoni said.

Putnam County Superintendent Chuck Hatfield has said a large number of high school graduates in Putnam go on to college, but that nearly two out of three don't earn a degree. For that reason, Putnam schools have started focusing on career readiness skills and are developing programs to help students figure out career paths.

"So many young people are stepping from high school to college with no career focus and people can't afford not to know what they want to do," D'Antoni said, noting the rising cost of tuition.

While she would never discourage someone from attending college, D'Antoni said students should become more aware of available career and learning options. 

Being aware of job opportunities is something the state Department of Education plans to stress more to students in the future. First, however, a misconception that attending a technical school means a student is not as academically capable must be dispelled, she said.

"The sad thing is, is most people think going to a career and tech center means you're not academically good. That's not true anymore. We're passed the age when a four-year degree guarantees you a job," D'Antoni said.

"People have to understand that all occupations have a technical side. Students need to think at a young age, 'I really like taking things apart and building things, I could be an engineer.' Well why aren't you at the career center taking drafting and machining to be a step ahead if you go on to engineering school?"

Reach Kate White at kate.white@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1723.

 


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