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Friday, 01 April 2016 13:47

Workforce development: Schools invest in the work of the future

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David Vegter, left, and Michael Fellin, technical education instructor at Delavan-Darien High School, work with one of the machine’s in the schools new fabrication lab. Area school districts are investing in trade and technology programs to prepare students for the growing demand in well-paid, skilled jobs. David Vegter, left, and Michael Fellin, technical education instructor at Delavan-Darien High School, work with one of the machine’s in the schools new fabrication lab. Area school districts are investing in trade and technology programs to prepare students for the growing demand in well-paid, skilled jobs. Terry Mayer/staff

WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- As unemployment numbers continue to drop and the labor force tightens, the demand for workers in the trades and manufacturing continues to grow.

The future members of that workforce now are in middle school and high school, where they are increasingly exposed to the skills they’ll need.

Legislators and leaders in economic development say developing a skilled workforce is the No. 1 issue facing businesses in Wisconsin.

Area high schools are enhancing their trades and technology education programs to help students develop the skills they will need for future employment.

Delavan-Darien High School opened its fabrication lab last fall, a referendum has allowed Elkhorn Area High School to invest in new classes and Badger High School is aligning its program with future options for students, just to highlight a few initiatives in Walworth County.

Michael Fellin, technical education instructor at Delavan-Darien High School, said the school’s fabrication lab, or fab lab as students call it, was finished last summer and equipped during the fall term.

It features state-of-the-art machines and computer equipment that allows students to work on projects that will help them prepare for a career in the trades industry.

"In a couple of weeks, we have a plasma cutter coming in, which will be exciting," Fellen said. "I have two seniors in my advanced metals class, and it’s going to be difficult keeping them off of that. They’re going to have more projects made in a short period of time."

Fellin said, since the fab lab was established, several students have worked on projects for local companies.

"The guys are learning how to use the machines and making things for themselves," Fellin said. "We are presently working on two jobs for area companies."

In December, Precision Plus asked if they could produce the tags to identify pieces of their production machinery.

The other job is for a person who is a part of a club, and they are working on different logos and plastic identification items for their club.

Nathan Johnson, a senior, said he enjoys working in the fab lab and designing his own projects.

"I like the fact that we’re the ones doing the work. We don’t design something and somebody goes off and makes it for us; we’re the ones behind the designing and actually building of it," Johnson, 17, said. "It’s cool that we can take our ideas from the computer; before we would have to draw it up in the woodshop then build it from there. But we can actually go and take a file from the computer, straight to the 3-D printer, and it will make our exact idea that we want."

Oscar Mova, also a senior, said he has used the machines in the fab lab to make name tags for teachers at the high school.

"It’s fun making stuff. People come to you and ask you to make stuff that they can’t get anywhere else," Mova, 18, said. "I like being in a class where you’re doing stuff."

Besides the fab lab, Delavan-Darien High School offers woods and metals classes, building construction class, computer science classes, electronics engineering class and engineering design and development class.

Fellin said five of the 16 students in the lab will be going on to schools to pursue careers in manufacturing.

"We have a student going on to UW-Platteville for engineering. I told him to take pictures and keep prototypes because if he walks in with a portfolio, he can walk into any company and say this is what I did and I’ll make prototypes for you. So, he’s already trained further than a huge percentage of kids coming out of high school."

The district recently received a $25,000 grant to develop a trades program at Phoenix Middle School.

"Next year, half of my day will be developing and teaching a semester of a middle school program and the other half of the day will be over (at the high school)," Fellin said. "We have hired a full-time instructor already."

Fellin said he also recently received a $5,000 grant to offer a five-day trades program for middle school girls this summer to help those who are interested in the trades.

Investing in technology

Elkhorn Area High School will enhance its trades and technology program next school year thanks to a $990,000 per year referendum that was approved in April 2014. The referendum was to help enhance programs and maintain facilities in the school district. Part of the referendum was to upgrade technology education equipment.

Austin Thorson, automotive technology instructor at Elkhorn Area High School, said the school will begin offering a metals, welding and buildings construction course during the 2016-’17 school year. He said more students have become involved in the school’s trades program during the past few years.

"(The trades program) has been growing. There’s more interest in it," Thorson said. "I think more is being invested in the skill trades. I think administrators realize not everyone is going to go on to a four-year college. More students are going into the skilled trades because they’ve found something they’re good at."

Thorson said several students already have expressed an interest in attending the new courses that will be offered next school year.

The school currently offers an automotive program where students have the opportunity to work on cars.

"The kids run it like a little mechanic business," Thorson said. "They work on teachers’ cars and parents’ cars. It’s a great way for them to get real-world experience."

The school also offers a woodworking course, which has seen an increase in enrollment during the past year.

Thorson said many students continue their education in the trades after they graduate high school, while others find employment.

"More kids are participating in youth apprentice programs where they work out in a job," Thorson said. "Some students work for Kunes and build their career. Some students go on to Gateway Technical College. A few students find jobs that help them pay for their schooling. Not all students choose a four-year school. Some go on to job training or a trades school."

Thorson said trade courses can help students learn useful skills, even if they don’t go into the trades as a career.

"It teaches kids life skills. They are going to need those skills to live," Thorson said. "A lot of students realize that some day they’re going to own a car and they’re going to own a home, so they’re going to need the skills to take care of those things."

Aligning classes with opportunities

Badger High School offers a variety of trades and technical education courses, including computer drafting, automotive repair, graphic design, engineering, woodworking, child care and business marketing. Several classes allow students to obtain college credit or an industrial certificate.

"We have a comprehensive trades program. All in all, we have quite a few choices," said Marie Collins, career and technical education representative at Badger High School. "We’ve always had a high enrollment in the career and tech program. We’ve seen an increase in students enrolling in engineering."

Collins said more trades and career education classes have been added at Badger during the past few years.

"We try to align our curriculum with Gateway Technical College to help students prepare for a career," Collins said.

Collins said the school has obtained many students through open enrollment because of its trades and technical education program.

"We get some students who part-time open enroll so they can take advantage of those classes," Collins said. "It basically depends on availability. Full-time students at Badger get first choice over a student who is enrolled part time. There’s a lot of students who want to come here."

Collins said many students find employment through the career education courses.

"A lot of the technology courses teach employment skills. Some students get their industrial certificate and go on to high-paying jobs," Collins said. " It helps them know what they want to do for the rest of their lives."

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