Together, we can provide a strong, educated workforce

Say Professional Development and watch teachers’ eyes glaze over. But February 17 wasn’t your average sit-in-a-crowded-room-and-feign-interest-in-speaker-while-scanning-social-media-on-your-phone professional development.

Monday was a collaboration between Duncan Area Economic Development Foundation, owners, directors and managers from several local manufacturing plants and high school faculty. It was their show and tell for us.

They proudly took groups of teachers on tours of their facilities as employees worked, and they explained what their companies produced and how they did so. More importantly, they explained what skill sets those employees needed coming out of school. That’s where we came in.

CAREER PATHWAYS

Duncan schools has taken on piloting a program in Oklahoma called Career Pathways under the Southwest Oklahoma Impact Coalition (SOIC). The development program is funded by a U.S. Department of Labor Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) grant and covers two economic development planning districts and 20 Oklahoma counties, of which Stephens is one.

Much of education’s focus has been on college preparedness. Indeed, it seems all the standardized testing and push to offer more AP classes is all directed at getting students to college, which, in turn, boosts our school grade A-F, keeps our doors open and teachers employed.

The leaders we spoke with, however, maintain that college is not the best path for everyone. Many of the jobs we saw on our tour required vocational/technical training. That training can be formal at schools like our local Red River Technology Center, or at Oklahoma State University’s School of Technology with campuses in Okmulgee and Oklahoma City. Some high school graduates with the correct aptitude and attitude are trained by the company.

I never realized we had that many manufacturing companies in our area, nor that they employed so many. As three groups, we toured Halliburton Services, Cameron Measurement Systems, Southern Machine, MIC Group and Wilco Machine and Fab. It’s important to note that these companies, their owners and directors, didn’t just step up for tours for the day, they stepped up to be a part of this entire program. They are in it for the education of the students in our area, because those students become the local workforce. It’s good for everybody.

SHOW AND TELL TIME

Each tour guide was proud of his company, spending some time on what they produced and how it all worked. But they also let us know that they not only employed people in manufacturing with welding, machine and fabrication skills, they also needed people in sales and marketing, in information technology, in accounting and finance, in human resources. In short, these “home-grown” businesses can and need to employ people with a range of skills, and the better they are educated for these real-world jobs, the better off we all are. The pay for a many of these positions was quite competitive with their college-educated counterparts, oh, say, teachers or journalists for example. Ouch.

They shared some of the skills they need to see, which they find with increasing frequency new employees do not have, at least at the necessary levels. They all mentioned communications skills, both verbal and written as very important. You can be a great idea person, but until you can convey those ideas so that they are clearly understood, it doesn’t really matter.  One guide mentioned that basic math skills are decreasing with students’ growing dependency on calculators. We were told some can’t read a tape measure.

It was on my group’s second tour, at Cameron Measurements, that I really started applying what I was hearing to how we would each – the math teacher, the science teacher, the English teacher, even the art teacher – apply the different skills needed in those jobs to the education of our students. Of course at a company that develops flow meters, measurement is everything, so the math and physical science are no-brainers. When our guide mentioned that new ideas had to be presented for additional funding and the go-ahead to proceed with the project, my English teacher brain kicked in. Maybe my students won’t get much out of writing about themes present in “Romeo and Juliet,” but writing proposals for a skate park? That could be helpful. And new ideas for flow meters? It probably helps if you can sketch the thing, art teacher. These ideas began forming before I took out my reporter’s notebook.

That happened at Wilco.

Yes, I always carry one. I teach journalism.

We gathered in the relatively small reception area to get ready for the Wilco tour, and President Brad Boles addressed the group. It was clear in a short time that Boles was passionate about his business, the Pathways program and about education. Having recently taken a position on the Marlow school board, he spoke to us from a familiar place. He seemed to get much of what educators in Oklahoma are up against.

The gentleman leading our smaller group, Brent Cole, pointed out work being done and fielded questions from teachers in our group about hiring and skills needed. Science teacher Katy Melton asked about metric versus standard measurements. What do the students need instruction in? Both, Cole told us. They need to be able to convert. Interestingly, Melton explained, Oklahoma standards mandate metric only. This was one isolated example of several conflicts between legislators, educators and the real-world workforce and is a valid reason for such important collaboration.

Cole, like Boles, gets it. He reiterated what we all know, what legislators seem not to understand.

“We need to accommodate the needs of local employers, rather than state mandates,” he told the group.

That, right there, that’s when I pulled out the notebook and pencil. That’s when I began my struggle for reading glasses under safety glasses.

SO WHAT CAN WE DO?

After the tours, we met back at Halliburton for lunch and a panel discussion. The owners, directors and other company reps addressed their educator audience about how the state’s push for college readiness for all students might be misdirected, about how critical thinking, idea generation and troubleshooting are important yet are not areas that can be tested. They talked about soft skills necessary to be a good employee, dressing appropriately, communicating effectively, following directions, and being punctual. At one point a teacher accused them of preaching to the choir, everyone laughed and we got on with more discussion about what we could do: emphasize analytical thinking, presentation skills, and showing initiative. We talked about what they could do when math teacher Sharon Edwards suggested they had a captive audience in their own employees. Talk to them about the importance of their children’s’ education, about showing up, about reacting positively regarding math and other subjects rather than negatively. That was an “aha” moment for many.

There was also agreement all around that the one group missing was legislators – the decision makers. I was surprised to learn that most of the panelists had already extended invitations to different politicians for facility tours, had already contacted different governmental entities on behalf of this and similar programs. They’re already trying to make a difference in their workforce and they know it starts with education.

SETTING THE EXAMPLE

DAEDF staff members, President Lyle Roggow and Jeannie Bowden, each stressed that others in the state are looking to Duncan to pilot this program. They’re watching to see how we make this work so they can consider how they may replicate its success. After meeting with the leaders I watched and listened to on Monday, I cannot imagine that this won’t be a successful program. I was amazed at the passion, the knowledge and the degree of intelligence and drive I witnessed when they all spoke to us. It was validating and uplifting.

Imagine such a program in your area. Manufacturing may not be the “thing” in your neck of the woods. In fact, the program here in Duncan will soon have educators interacting with the healthcare industry in a similar fashion. How could you make such a program work for your area economy and school system? What could such a program do for your local workforce?

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