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.
Joey Burns is among those taking advantage of high school technical education. Burns is a student in the robotics programming course offered for the first time this year at Parker High School.
“There’s really not any limitations on what you can build,” said Burns, a junior. “If you can think of it, you can build it.”
The new robotics course allows students to build a robot to perform simple tasks such as throwing a ball through a hoop or picking up small objects. Robotics programming is just one of several technology education courses offered at Parker.
“We have kids from all walks of life -- from artists to a gifted kid who knows he wants to be a software mechanical engineer,” said Tom Heiss, Parker technology education instructor. “They’re all putting their minds together to build a product, which is a robot to do a task.
“That’s huge because that’s what businesses are looking for.”
The robotics course will be offered next school year at Craig High School as well.
Parker High School also hosts the Rock County Robotics Club, which includes students from Parker, Craig, Milton and Clinton high schools. The club meets twice a month and participates in robotic-building competitions.
The Janesville School District plans to offer robotics clubs for other grade levels next year.
“We’re hoping to have robotic teams at all the elementary and middle schools starting next year,” said Robert Getka, computer science instructor. “That will help drive the need for more of these classes.”
Besides the robotics course, Parker offers a transportation course in which students learn how to repair vehicles.
“The kids can repair a part on a car or fix the brakes. It’s really more the kids bring in their vehicles and we work on them. They work on their cars and their parents’ cars,” Heiss said. “We don’t encourage people in the community to come because there are businesses in the community that repair cars, and we encourage people to support local businesses, and we don’t have all the answers. We’re learning all the different things.”
Parker also offers a construction trades course in which students learn how to build a house.
“The kids learn that as a youth apprenticeship,” Heiss said. “Then they will build (the house) into a beautiful product.”
Enrollment for technical education courses has been increasing for several years, Heiss said, and students often find employment opportunities before graduation.
“Now that retirements are on the upswing, the kids are being sought after by businesses sooner than later for youth apprenticeship opportunities,” Heiss said. “The School District of Janesville will try to get (students) out in the engineering fields, agriculture fields, health science fields and have kids experience what’s happening as they’re juniors and seniors as they get paid for it.
“They learn from the mentors at those sites about how they got into their occupation, how they went on to college or tech school and received more education to get a job.”
More students also are taking an interest in computer science courses, Getka said.
“My first 20 years of teaching, I was the only computer science teacher at whatever school I was at,” Getka said. “We hired a new computer science teacher a few years ago, and we’re getting another computer science teacher next year, so that just shows the growth.”
There’s a need for more technical education teachers, Heiss said.
“We’re hurting in all categories. Education is really suffering right now,” he said. “You can make more money as an electrical engineer than as a tech ed teacher, so people figure, ‘Why not just become a technical engineer?’”
At Craig High School, more students are showing interest in the growing array of automotive repair, construction, manufacturing, graphic arts and engineering classes, said Victor Herbst, technical ed teacher.
“We’ve had great enrollment. Next year, we’re looking to hire a new teacher because student enrollment has increased,” Herbst said. “We’ve also seen more female students enrolled in the past few years, which is great to see…
“A lot of kids like (the tech ed) courses because they like to do the hands-on stuff. They get to use technology, which the kids like.”
The school tries to incorporate updated technology into the classrooms whenever possible, Herbst said.
“It’s always a revolving process. We don’t have unlimited funds, so we have to be smart with how much we buy,” he said. “The teachers and students get excited when we get new equipment, so we try to update as we go along.”
Some Craig technical education students land jobs directly out of high school, but continued training is key, Herbst said.
“We try to encourage students to get their schooling,” Herbst said. “Students who do find jobs, it’s usually at entry-level positions, so a lot of them go on to school.”
Edgerton High School is looking to expand its technology education program. The school recently received a $25,000 grant to establish a fabrication lab.
Technical education instructor Joe Mink said the fab lab not only will benefit the tech ed program, but other programs.
“We’re hoping to bring in some math and science instruction so students can get some hands-on learning and find out what they’re learning is meaningful for the workplace,” Mink said.
The school established the Craftsmen with Character program this year in which students visit a business to shadow an employee.
“It’s a pre-apprentice course where a student hangs out with a mentor, and they guide them along about how they got into their career,” Mink said. “The students learn what the mentors do on a daily basis. It helps the students learn what road (the mentor) took for their career.”
Edgerton School District residents passed a referendum in 2012 to make improvements to the school buildings, including improvements for the high school’s trades and engineering program, Mink said.
“It’s a full reroute of our technology education program,” Mink said. “We have nice rooms. We’re bringing the facility from 1972 to now.”
Edgerton High School offers courses in construction, manufacturing, automotive repair and engineering. Mink said the average class size ranges from 10 to 24 students.
“It seems that the higher the level, the lower the class size because of the time that’s involved,” Mink said. “Our precision machining class is a block class, and our school has an eight-hour day. So, the students have to give up more time.
“The students who take the class are more interested in machining as a career.”
Most students find employment upon graduation, he said.
“Part of my job is to make sure (the students’) job opportunities are solid,” Mink said.
“I try to make sure they at least gain a youth apprenticeship.”
Even if students don’t pursue a technical career, they still learn skills that will help them in other areas of life, Mink said.
“Just owning a vehicle, (the automotive repair course) helps you learn how to check fluids, so you’re not paying someone $80 an hour to do it,” Mink said. “You learn problem-solving skills. For example, when a light bulb goes out, you learn what caused it to go out. You learn how to solve logistical problems.
“I tell students sometimes you have to fail to get to the end result. This will probably be the only class where they’re told it’s OK to fail in class.”