By Jennifer Wohlleb
Grayson County Schools Superintendent Barry Anderson is making a big commitment: When the 2012-13 school year begins Aug. 1, the district will have a machine tool technology program to turn out employees to fill jobs for which local manufacturers say they can’t find skilled labor.
Considering the district has no designated class space at its locally run technology center, no equipment or even an instructor for the program, that’s promising a lot. But with school officials working hand in hand with all of the county’s manufacturers, the odds are looking good for the program to get off the ground.
PHOTO: Grayson County Schools Superintendent Barry Anderson, center, speaks with local manufacturing leaders during a meeting in October.
“The industrial people were cautiously optimistic,” Anderson said. “I’m dead set that we’re going to pull this off. I know our board supports this. My biggest challenge is going to be finding a good instructor, but I have faith that we’ll be able to pull that off.”
School leaders, manufacturing representatives and the Leitchfield-Grayson County Industrial Development Corp. have met twice, with another meeting planned this month, to set a course to better align the district’s education offerings with the employment needs of area businesses. At the conclusion of the second meeting in October, group members left with a direction and reasons to feel good about the new partnership.
The conversation began earlier this year during a gathering of human resource managers from the plants. The discussion turned to visiting the schools and helping teach students the basics of filling out applications, interview and work skills, as well as other qualities to help make them attractive to employers.
After the district responded to that request, “we sort of jumped and said, ‘You know, not only that, but there’s a real disconnect between the technology center and industry as far as having the availability of students trained at even entry-level positions, and what you guys are training,’” said Joel Bernard, general manager of Service Stamping & Threading, which manufactures agricultural products.
Finding an instructor may be the biggest hurdle the group faces, but educating the educators about manufacturing runs a close second.
“How many teachers, how many parents, how many students, when they drive down the street past any of the plants represented here, they see four walls but do they really know what’s going on inside those four walls?” Bernard asked during the October meeting. “Unless their background is manufacturing, then no, they don’t. Most of your teachers, your 650 employees that you have, the bulk of them don’t know what goes on inside those four walls, so they can’t really represent it to their students very well.”
Anderson said he was already talking with administrators in his district about planning field trips to the plants, and how to include manufacturers in the classroom.
“I told our administrators that we can’t be in our own little world of education, we have to be open to the community,” he said. “And for us to get all of the resources that we need, we’ve got to engage the community, so we have to be great community partners. We’ve got to welcome the community into our schools and we’ve got to leave our schools and go out into the community for us to have what we want for our kids in Grayson County Schools.”
Bernard also emphasized the importance of putting an accurate picture of manufacturing jobs in front of students and teachers.
Manufacturing groups are “trying to help dispel the myths about manufacturing, that it’s dark, it’s dirty, it’s dangerous work, it’s low pay, it’s low skill,” Bernard said. “That’s just not the case anymore. Those jobs have likely gone overseas and the ones that are coming back are automated, robotics. So the low-pay, low-skill jobs are being replaced by automation and high-pay, high-skill jobs.”
Grayson County school board Chairwoman Carolyn Thomason, who also supervises student teachers and interns at Western Kentucky University, said it’s important to make students aware of all their options.
“I work with student teachers and interns – and I can’t speak for all areas – but we have an overabundance of elementary ed people, and there are people from at least three or four years ago who would make excellent teachers but can’t find jobs,” she said. “We need to channel students into the technical areas as well as college.”
Nothing is definite, but the Grayson County Board of Education has approved the creation of a teaching position for the hopefully soon-to-be created machine program. Everything depends on being able to find someone to fill the position, a challenge because the job requires recent work in the industry and a willingness to get certified for teaching. This may also mean taking a pay cut.
Thomason is confident that the program will get off the ground.
“There is so much cohesiveness, cooperation with our industries, and government and school system, the industrial foundation. I have not heard any negative comments; everyone is passionate about it,” she said.
If a teacher is found, local manufacturing leaders feel confident that between themselves and the school district, they can make sure the new program has what it needs, either through the district’s budget, grants and donations through manufacturing-affiliated groups, or the businesses themselves.
“I’m thinking for the first couple of years, we’re looking at (basic equipment),” Bernard said during the October meeting. “And by year two if you can come up with a piece or two of CNC (computer numerical control) equipment, I think we would be well on our way.
“I have reached out to a few people as far as what is available, programming software and simulation, and nearly every programming manufacturer, they have an educational program of some sort.
Obviously, they are well served to make sure that students know how to run their equipment … they’ve got some good programs out there; you can stretch your dollar pretty far.”
And as long as they continue to work together, both sides sound cautiously optimistic.
“I think that the folks sitting around this table, the more involvement we can have at the classroom level, the better off we’re going to be collectively and the better off the kids are going to be,” Bernard said.
Anderson said being receptive to the needs of the local manufacturers helps everyone.
He said, “If we can send kids out of our schools and they’re ready to work in a plant, maybe as an industrial maintenance person or in machining, they can buy a house here and pay property taxes that help the school system. We’re all better off.”