In Mason, Ohio, the Rhinestahl Corporation specializes in making high-precision, low-volume machining and tooling equipment. Some of the parts that it manufactures for the space, defense, and transportation industries have never been made before. So, it’s no surprise that Rhinestahl puts a priority on ingenuity, accuracy, and problem-solving skills for its workforce. That’s why the company is setting its sights on middle school.

From open houses and tours, to a teacher program designed to engage and raise educators’ awareness about career pathways in advanced manufacturing for their students, Rhinestahl and other manufacturers in the Cincinnati area are eager to connect with schools. They are “very focused on strengthening and scaling the bridge between industry and schools, not only with the career and tech schools but with the middle schools and the feeder schools,” says Amy Meyer, vice president of corporate development for Rhinestahl.

“We’re all committed to making sure the career and technical programs in our region are full and that we can scale the number of students going into these programs because we all have jobs,” Meyer says. “We have jobs available right now.”

An employee with Rhinestahl Advanced Manufacturing Group discusses manufacturing jobs with a student during a hands-on summer camp held at a Great Oaks Career Campus in Cincinnati. (Photo credit: Rhinestahl Corporation)

Business, industry, and trade group engagement with education has long been an essential element of career and technical education (CTE), “going back to when it was historically more vocational education,” says Kate Kreamer, deputy executive director of Advance CTE, an association for state directors of career technical education. And as CTE has evolved, become more visible, and moved into more sectors, “more partners are coming to the table,” Kreamer says.

Meaningful engagement with business and industry, in fact, is a major tenet of the reauthorized Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act (Perkins V) and for good reason. You can’t have “the relevancy and authenticity within (CTE) programs and pathways if you don’t have industry at the table helping set expectations, helping set standards, providing workplace learning and experiences to actually show what a workplace looks like, what it actually means to be in the world of work, rather than just in a classroom,” Kreamer says.

That relationship can come in various forms, depending on the resources available. A report examining ways to increase access to industry experts, produced by the Center on Great Teachers and Leaders, the College and Career Readiness and Success Center, and Advance CTE, noted that with experts in IT, cybersecurity, office administration, facilities management, and other fields, municipal government and school district staff should be considered when seeking experts to advise and mentor workplace learning, especially in communities with limited access to such advisors.

And the report, “CTE on the Frontier: Connecting Rural Learners with the World of Work,” identified ways to bring the physical experience of work-based learning and employer engagement to learners through simulated workplace experiences, satellite campuses, and mobile labs.

Taking Flight

For the past decade, aircraft engine maker Pratt & Whitney’s Columbus, Georgia, facility has teamed with the Muscogee County School District and Columbus Technical College for a paid-internship program that offers students interested in aerospace and manufacturing a workplace learning opportunity while also growing the company’s local workforce pipeline. When the program, dubbed “Flight Plan to Success,” first began, “the company had to go out of the region, even out of the state, to hire qualified mechanics to work on its jet engines,” says Tim Vinson, until recently the school district’s youth apprenticeship coordinator.

Cincinnati Public Schools middle school students participate in a tour hosted at Rhinestahl Advanced Manufacturing Group in Mason, Ohio. (Photo credit: Rhinestahl Corporation)

To be eligible, students must first complete a dual-enrollment course, “Certified Manufacturing Specialist,” offered through Columbus Tech. Designed by Pratt & Whitney and the Georgia State Department of Education, the curriculum focuses on safety, operations, and some of the automation in the aircraft facility. Since its launch, approximately 150 students have gone through the program, Vinson says. Of those, Pratt & Whitney has hired 78 students full-time and all but two are still employed with the company. One of the two left to attend Georgia Tech and pursue an engineering degree. After a year of full-time employment, employees are eligible for full college scholarships from Pratt & Whitney’s parent company, United Technologies. “That’s a real selling point to parents,” Vinson says.

Pratt & Whitney also partners with Muscogee County School District on a program designed to expose middle-schoolers at one district school to skilled labor careers. “Our local home builder association is another strong partner of the ET3 (Engineering, Technology and Trades on Tuesdays) program,” says Vinson, currently the CEO of the district’s new College & Career Academy.

The Flight Plan internship program has been so effective that it has expanded to two neighboring districts, Harris County School District and Chattahoochee County School District.

Jump Start

Like other industries dependent on skilled trade workers, the electrical construction industry is battling a labor shortage. Rocked by a period of decline in vocational training programs, postrecession construction slowdowns, and an aging workforce, the industry struggles to fill its pipeline with the next generation of electricians.

A student from Ohio’s West Clermont High School's Project Lead the Way program gets a close-up look at a welding inspection during a tour of Rhinestahl Advanced Manufacturing Group. (Photo credit: Rhinestahl Corporation)

A key contributor to the workforce gap is that most students and their parents, and school counselors and administrators are unaware of the attractive salaries and benefits, all-expense paid apprenticeships, and varied opportunities open to electrical workers, says Kevin Tighe, executive director of labor relations and workforce development at the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA).

To lay the foundation for a pathway into the skilled electricians trade, NECA and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) headed back to school. Through its Electrical Training Alliance program, NECA and IBEW launched the Interim Credentials curriculum that enables high school seniors to jump-start their enrollment in the Alliance apprenticeship program. Students who successfully complete the module-based, largely online curriculum can be eligible for direct entry into the second year of the five-year apprenticeship.

One of the great benefits of CTE is that it helps students learn “what they’re interested in just as much as what they’re not,” says Carrie Dopson, who oversaw the Interim Credential program and other CTE offerings in the Baker County School District near Jacksonville, Florida. She now heads the Baker County Adult Education Center. “High school seniors can be really hard to get motivated,” Dopson says. “To get them to where they feel they’re on a career path with a foot in the world of work has been a real positive. CTE courses are doing that.” 

An instructor shows three students medical equitment

Students watch a surgical technology demonstration during a healthcare careers program at Midlands Technical College in Columbia, South Carolina. (Photo credit: Midlands Education and Business Alliance)

Return on Investment

Just as students are reminded that there’s no guarantee that an internship or other workplace learning opportunity will result in a full-time job offer, it’s important for business and industry partners to remember that even when they have job openings, there’s no assurance that students will be interested or feel that it’s the right fit for them.

Oregon business executive and longtime CTE advocate Charlie Hopewell always found it “a bit disturbing” when business associates asked, “If I invest in students, what’s the guarantee that they will come work for me?”

There is no guarantee, but the payoff that comes from “making an investment in the system” is well worth the price, says Hopewell, CEO of the Jewett-Cameron Trading Company. The North Plains, Oregon-based holding company distributes tools, fencing, storage structures, and other items worldwide.

A member of the Oregon Business Council’s CTESTEM Employers Coalition, Hopewell has been active in encouraging the local business community to “drive both legislative and local level support” for CTE. The hands-on learning at the heart of CTE helps all students, college- or career-bound, develop academic proficiency, technical skills, and valuable industry certifications, he says. And not enough can be said about the communication, collaboration, problem-solving, and other so-called soft skills also get reinforced, Hopewell adds.

That belief led him to advise district and regional CTE programs, participate in numerous career day programs, place interns in the businesses he’s managed, and serve on statewide CTE-STEM commissions. Business participation at all levels make a difference, he says, but advisory committees are especially important because they serve as a “coupler” that helps “drive” educators and the business community together.

Middle school students from South Carolina’s Fairfield County Schools visit the Richland County facility of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems manufacturer Trane. (Photo credit: Midlands Education and Business Alliance)

Math Matters

The desire to bring schools and industry closer spurred Advanced Manufacturing Industry Partners (AMIP), an employer-led regional collaboration of businesses in Southwest Ohio, Northern Kentucky, and Southeast Indiana, to recently add a director of education partnerships to its team. She worked with the Cincinnati-area teachers who participated in the externship program, offering insights and curriculum ideas.

While grateful for the economic growth their industry is experiencing, “if we can’t attract high school graduates and college graduates to hire, we can’t meet our customer demand,” says Meyer, AMIP chair.

At Rhinestahl, two math teachers interviewed employees in engineering, sales, human resources, and the production floor (including programming, welding, machining, quality control, and shipping) to better understand the skills and roles in the company and how they support the overall business operation. They developed classroom lesson plans, including showing how trigonometry and other advanced mathematics are used at the company.

A primary objective for the AMIP members is conveying to students in high school and middle school “that you really need math and computer skills in our jobs,” Meyer says. “We want to make sure that kids and their parents know and understand that math matters. We need the kids who know trig and calculus, who code and are great at it,” she adds. “If you don’t have those skills, you’re not going to make it in manufacturing today.”
To emphasize its support of CTE, Rhinestahl and some AMIP members support local chapters of SkillsUSA, the national CTE student organization, and participate in “Signing Day” ceremonies held at local technology and career high schools. “It’s a big splash,” says Meyer of the event that celebrates CTE students signing job and apprenticeship contracts with the fanfare typically associated with students receiving football scholarships or gaining acceptance to the Ivy League.

An ongoing challenge in its partnership efforts with schools is that some are resistant to hearing CTE’s message about post-high school jobs, careers, and educational opportunities. Many hear manufacturing and skilled trades and still think it’s only for “kids who are not doing well academically,” Meyer says.

A middle school student learns about a career as dental lab technician during a healthcare careers visit at Midlands Technical College in Columbia, South Carolina. (Photo credit: Midlands Education and Business Alliance)

Better Preparing Students

Reaching out to parents through open houses, tours, and information sessions is important to dispel outdated perceptions about CTE, says Lisa Call, regional career specialist with the Midlands Education and Business Alliance (MEBA). The organization connects local employers and industry representatives with students and school districts in South Carolina’s Fairfield, Lexington, and Richland counties.

During events like Manufacturing Day 2018, the nationwide celebration showcasing modern manufacturing, participating Richland County companies ranged from Nephron Pharmaceuticals, a leading maker of inhalation solutions and suspension products used to treat respiratory conditions, to AVANTech, an engineering and manufacturing firm that develops water treatment solutions for industrial, commercial, and nuclear power projects. They welcomed students, parents, educators, and other visitors “to see their organizations, see what opportunities and careers there are, see what a typical day looks like in their work environment,” says Samantha Turner, MEBA’s director of workforce development.

How school districts involve employers in their CTE programs

Business and industry’s pressing need to find its next generation of workers presents an opportunity to better prepare students and families to make important decisions about each student’s future, college, and career planning choices, and how they’re going to pay for it, Call says. “Businesses need to build their workforce, but we want our residents to be productive citizens, enjoying the work that they do. The more exploration and opportunities that businesses provide, and our schools provide for students to explore, that’s a good thing.”

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