What Shop Class Did for Me

August 14, 2018

 

Among us boys, Wilhelm Wolfskill gained immediate cult-hero status with a single utterance.

 

"Willie," as we called him behind his back, was our “shop class” teacher at South Lebanon Middle School in Lebanon, Pa. I’m guessing the year was 1968 or 1969, and I was in either in seventh or eighth grade.

 

Willie was showing us the proper way to use a mallet and chisel, and we were gathered around him when he said something in his heavy German accent that will remain with me for the rest of my life.

 

“Ach du Lieber, who let der schmelly von?” (Translation: Good heavens, who farted?)

 

Even my father cracked up when he heard that.

 

In addition to that memorable quote, I have something else that has remained with me from Willie's shop class – a small, wooden foot bench that I made 50 years ago. It’s not much to look at, then or now.

 

But it meant a lot to me then to a 13-year-old boy who was much confused about the world. And it means a lot to me today as a 63-year-old man who still gets much confused on occasion. It’s why I have kept it.

 

Goggles and Aprons

 

Back then, shops class was formally known as “industrial arts,” and it was mandatory for all boys. (There were no girls in class.) I remember the goggles and the dark blue aprons that we had to wear and how the loud shrieking table saw absolutely terrified me.

 

I imagined losing control of a piece of wood while guiding it through the circular saw blade and the board snapping back and smashing into my face. I was much more relaxed with a handsaw.

 

If memory serves me right, my first shop class was strictly woodworking, but I remember being introduced to welding in school (no aptitude there), so I may have had a second shop class along the way. Mind you, this was middle school, before high school.

 

There was a degree of self-satisfaction in making my simple little foot bench. More importantly, shop class gave me the opportunity to figure out for myself that I was not nearly as mechanically inclined as my father, who was a metallurgical engineer. That realization would help me later make career choices.

 

Other classmates built things that made my little foot bench look like child’s play. They, too, probably made career choices, at least partially influenced by what they learned about themselves and their abilities in shop class. In that regard, shop class served us all well.

 

Finding the Good and the Bad

 

Today in my role as a consultant to economic development organizations and companies, it pleases me greatly when I come across communities that have established robust vocational education and training programs, both at the high school level and in local community colleges.

 

In my book, that’s always a good thing because it ensures a pipeline of talent for local employers, but it also usually indicates a willingness of educators and local employers to work together.

 

Likewise, I have been to communities where there is a profound lack of effort or resources devoted to what educators now call “career technical education” or CTE. It may have once been offered, but all such efforts have been seriously eroded or abandoned.

 

Not long ago, I was in a town that had a community college, but all the industrial trades were taught at a sister campus in another town 80 miles away. Lucky kids living there.

 

Then there was the community college offering courses in aircraft maintenance, which was fine except that there was virtually no aviation presence in the community. The nearest commercial airport was more than 100 miles away.

 

The head economic developer in another community once told me that he had never had a sit-down meeting with the president of the local community college, that they had no working relationship and barely knew each other.

 

I can remember a plant manager of metal fabrication plant, one of the largest employers in another town, telling me that while he thought the local high school was offering some fairly good vocational training, the community college was offering none. The exception was cosmetology. There were classes being offered in that.

 

“They are of no help to us. None whatsoever,” the plant manager said.

Recently, I was in a city with a population of 100,000, where there was no community college at all. I thought that was particularly noteworthy, because the city had a long legacy of manufacturing, a sector that still resonates within the local economy.

 

Incredibly, that same city had four four-year colleges. When I asked about vocational education, the answers were vague and none too encouraging.

 

A Caste System in the Making

 

Even as a kid, I could detect a caste system in place. There was the “academic” path for those of us who aspired to go onto college. It’s what our parents and guidance counselors told us we should do.

 

Then there was the vocational pathway, which we in the academic track derisively referred to as “vo-tech.” The implication was that vo-tech kids were not smart enough to go to college. They had to go to work.

 

Of course, it was a stupid and wrong way of thinking, but it was indoctrinated into us. I believe that line of thinking is still pervasive today, although many would deny it. (I resisted somewhat, working in a grey-iron foundry for a year after high school before going to college.)

 

Looking back, I suspect that many of the vo-tech boys actually had a pretty good idea what they wanted to do. They wanted to be machinists, carpenters, electricians, plumbers and such -- whereas most of us on the academic track had not a clue.

 

My own career path became clear after reading “All the President’s Men” in 1974. Written by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, two reporters at The Washington Post who investigated the first Watergate break-in and ensuing scandal, the book cemented the idea that I would pursue a career in journalism.

 

As it turned out, journalism school at the University of Wisconsin was largely vocational in nature, which was a good thing. And there were no screaming circular saws.

 

These Other Capabilities

 

Baby Boomers with sophisticated machine skills, people of my age, are now retiring in droves. At the same time, many parents, teachers and guidance counselors continue to discourage young people from pursuing careers in the industrial trades, just as they did when I was a boy.

 

Over the years, we have created an education system where the emphasis is largely on improving standardized test scores and getting students ready for four-year colleges, while building actual job skills is given short shrift. When you think about it, we are so dependent of the people who make and repair and drive and do the sometimes dirty jobs that we cannot or will not do.

 

"The work of electricians, builders, plumbers, chefs, paramedics, carpenters, mechanics, engineers, security staff, and all the rest is absolutely vital to the quality of each of our lives," wrote Ken Robinson, Ph.D, wrote in his book "Creative Schools, The Element, Finding Your Element and Out of Our Minds.”

 

 "Yet the demands of academic testing mean that schools often aren't able to focus on these other capabilities.”

 

The No. 1 Business Problem Today

 

Manufacturers have been telling us for some time now that our schools are not turning out enough graduates with the math and science proficiency necessary to operate and repair computer-controlled factory equipment. It’s about time we listen.

 

While there are some indications that CTE may finally be gaining new life (last month President Donald Trump signed an executive order aimed at improving vocational education and job training), one of the most important business stories of 2018 is the difficulty that employers are having in finding qualified employees to fill a record 6.7 million job openings.

 

“Business’ number one problem is finding qualified workers. At the current pace of job growth, if sustained, this problem is set to get much worse,” Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, said in a statement. “These labor shortages will only intensify across all industries and company sizes.”

 

It Takes Two to Tango

 

The only way that I see for us to meet this problem head on is through creating partnerships between business and education. Mind you, that is far easier said than done. That's because educators and business people, particularly manufacturers, tend to speak past each other in different tribal languages.

 

For a meaningful partnership to happen, companies must assess their human resources needs in terms of numbers and what skill sets they want future employees to have and communicate that information to educators. It may also entail employers donating equipment, personnel and money to get vocational training programs at schools off the ground.

 

For their part, educators need to listen, ask questions and truly be responsive in trying to determine the needs of the companies. It may also entail schools hiring additional personnel with backgrounds in the trades to do the teaching.

 

The point is that if both sides talk, listen and do their respective agreed-upon parts, then real partnerships can be formed. It just takes two to tango.

 

And the truth is that I have seen this beautiful dance in multiple places. Northwest Georgia is just one example. The Georgia Northwestern Technical College, serving nine counties from six campuses, offers credit and noncredit programs designed to meet the needs of individual companies and consortia of companies with similar needs.

 

The school seeks out these partnerships. It’s a lovely dance when it happens and it can happen in more places if we only try to make it so. Where there is a will, there is a way.

 

I’ll see you down the road.

 

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