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Julia Steiny: When a School Makes Itself Useful To Business

Thursday, November 08, 2012

 

Eighteen years ago, on his first day as the new Superintendent of Blackstone Regional Vocational Technical School ( BRVTS) Dr. Michael Fitzpatrick found an envelope on his desk, left by his predecessor. At the time, enrollment was declining. Voc schools in general were out of fashion among young people.

So in the envelope was some strong advice from the out-going BRVTS Superintendent. For example: bite the bullet and close the old machine shop.

After all, it was probably in the 1950s when the Defense Industry Reserve lent the school's shop its surplus machining tools. The hand-operated lathes and drill presses were good for teaching woefully-obsolete skills. Robotic automation had replaced the old repetitive-motion assembly jobs, when possible. When not possible, those jobs were being off-shored to cheap labor forces in Mexico and later China.

The death knell of factory closings reverberated among the general public and students.

Most importantly, upgrading the shop with current, industry-standard equipment would be a guaranteed battle with the School Committee's budget hawks. One computerized numerical-control machine would likely run around $55K. A shop might need two or more, along with other pricey equipment. And to be truly useful to the development of a high-tech manufacturing workforce, both the skills and machines would need constant upgrading. Machine shops anywhere are incredibly expensive to equip and keep up.

So the advice was: eliminate the program. At the time most voc schools were doing just that anyway, so why not?

A careful, impeccable man, Fitzgerald decided to investigate among local businesses first. Mid-Massachusetts has no big plants building airplanes or submarines. But a significant number of small machining shops were doing brisk business supplying large plants.

In fact, he found the sector to be surprisingly robust. For a current image of the field, the National Association of Manufacturers reports these eye-opening facts:

* The United States is the world's largest manufacturing economy, producing 21 percent of global manufactured products. China is second at 15 percent and Japan is third at 12 percent.

* U.S. manufacturing produces $1.7 trillion of value each year, or 11.7 percent of U.S. GDP.

* Manufacturing supports an estimated 17 million jobs in the U.S.—about one in six private sector jobs. Nearly 12 million Americans (or 9 percent of the workforce) are employed directly in manufacturing.

* In 2010, the average U.S. manufacturing worker earned $77,186 annually, including pay and benefits. The average worker in all industries earned $56,436 annually.

* U.S. manufacturers perform two-thirds of all private sector R&D in the nation, driving more innovation than any other sector.

* Taken alone, U.S. Manufacturing would be the 9th largest economy in the world.

Furthermore, Fitzpatrick found that right there, in his own community's backyard, fabulous, high-paying jobs were going begging. Lots of them.

So he could make his own life easier. Or he could figure out how to engage and empower the local business leaders in a conversation about what kinds of training their workers need, and how on earth he'd acquire the hardware he'd need so his students could meet industry standards.

He says, "We recognized the need to recalibrate the competencies and skill sets. Then we had to back-map the professional development for the teachers -- both academic and vocational -- to teach the new skills. Finally, we had to get access to the machines themselves, the programs and so forth."

Gone were the basic skills that could be mastered quickly by school drop-outs. BRVTS geared up to teach a wealth of 21st-century skills -- programming, math, communicating well with teams.

His first order of business was to formalize a close relationship with local industry leaders. By now Fitzpatrick has a team of private-industry advisors for each of BVRV's 17 programs.

His real-world advisors paint the technical picture of what they need, and Fitzgerald assembles the faculty -- both academic and technical -- to design a curriculum and teaching strategy to meet those needs.

Together, they've developed a course of study that allows a BRVTS manufacturing graduate to go directly into the workforce, if she wants. The grads are also ready for a 2-year program to become a fully-certified CNC programmer, a foreman, or a production or quality control engineer. Still others go on to 4-year colleges for various kinds of engineering.

The school's job-placement record makes Fitzgerald beam.

"Last week Connecticut's Rolls Royce representative showed up on our doorstep wanting us to help fill his jobs. He needs capable machinists, and we would LOVE to do that. Rolls Royce is also involved in shipping, oil and manufacturing, other than their cars. They're in Norway, Sweden and Brazil. This is an incredible opportunity for our students!"

Fitzpatrick had guts and vision to reach out to forge new relationships 18 years ago, with neglected partners. It's remarkable how isolated most schools are from their own communities, never mind the real world of work. Kudos to BRVTS for making itself so useful.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at EducationNews.org . She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building demonstration projects in Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

 

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