While there’s no doubt teaching middle and high school students can prove adventuresome, an annual event aimed at providing exposure to manufacturing environments provides technology education teachers a whole different level of excitement.
Each June, a group of educators from throughout the state gathers in Northeast Wisconsin for a day aimed at both showing them appreciation for the important work they do and showcasing premier manufacturing career opportunities available to their students.
At the inaugural event last year, teachers explored the marine industry at Pulaski’s Marquis Yachts, culminating in a ride aboard one of the company’s vessels. This year, Oshkosh Defense and Pierce Manufacturing hosted Big Trucks Tech Ed Exploration. Educators strapped in for rides in military vehicles on the Oshkosh Defense test track before heading to Pierce for an up-close view of Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting vehicles and a chance to hoist a fire hose.
At a reception dinner following the day’s adventures, Oshkosh Corp. CEO Wilson Jones addressed the teachers and spoke on the importance of the role of technical education.
“I think this is one of the most underappreciated professions in the world,” he says.
Jones, whose son works full-time as a welder, says the manufacturing industry still needs to overcome stereotypes among kids and parents. When his son was in school, he says he appreciates that his teachers noticed his interest and nurtured it rather than encouraging him to pursue something else.
In noting the importance of the role of tech ed teachers, Jones says his industry and company face critical talent concerns. Oshkosh Corp., he says, operates in a niche market where there’s only so much automation can do. Therefore, it’s important for the company to continue to bring in skilled workers.
“We call it Operation Kitchen Sink. We’re throwing everything at it,” he says, noting that it will take creative thinking for the company to remain successful in competing for talent.
Jones says schools need more resources, including lab spaces that could help students determine what they want to do. It’s important, he says, for young people to have the opportunity to sample careers. For its part, Oshkosh Corp. continues to add school-to-work programs.
Mike Cattelino, apprenticeship manager at Fox Valley Technical College, attended the event and serves as the Wisconsin Technical College System representative on the Wisconsin Technology & Engineering Education Association (WTEA) board of directors. The WTEA serves as a conduit to connect students to employers, he says.
It’s important for teachers to have experiences like Big Trucks Tech Ed Exploration, he says. “That’s really what that is about, not necessarily to get teachers out of their classroom, but out of their comfort zone a little bit and show them how business functions beyond the product.”
The day provided the “cool factor” of big trucks, but it also gave teachers something they could take back to the classroom to reinforce concepts they’re teaching students in an unexpected way, Cattelino says. For example, educators often talk about the importance of students keeping their workbench clean. After visiting Oshkosh Corp. and Pierce, they can relate back real-life experiences about what they saw and why it’s important to keep workspaces clean and organized.
To kids, the day-to-day message can sound like a Charlie Brown teacher, Cattelino says. This firsthand exposure gives teachers a way to show how subjects such as math, as well as tech ed, relate directly to manufacturing jobs.
Chad Dorshorst, a technology and engineering teacher at Nekoosa High School, attended the event as a continuing education opportunity and echoes this sentiment. He says it’s important for teachers to visit plants so they can share with students that manufacturing careers aren’t dirty but rather offer exciting and engaging opportunities.
“You go to Oshkosh Corp., Oshkosh Defense, talk about saving lives,” he says. “If you can get (kids) interested, it can be, ‘Wait a minute, this isn’t just about doing homework.’”
Dorshorst says it’s important for teachers to show students all the pathways available to them and that a four-year degree isn’t always the best or only option. Students can go work for a manufacturer out of school and get the chance to have an employer pay for their education. They also can attend a technical college, where credits transfer easily and cost less than those at a four-year institution.
Of course, without tech ed teachers, that message can become more difficult to impart. As is the case with so many professions, Wisconsin faces a shortage of tech ed teachers.
The State of Wisconsin is addressing the issue with its Technology Education Pathways to Licensure program, which seeks to provide those with at least a bachelor’s degree a path to become a tech ed teacher. The University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh also offers an Alternative Careers in Teaching program that helps those with a bachelor’s degree or higher become certified to teach in-demand subjects, including technology and engineering education.
Cattelino says it’s important for tech ed teachers to act as proponents for their profession and for technical colleges and universities to reinforce the importance of the role these teachers play.
“If you went without tech ed in high school, where would a company like Oshkosh Corp. be? They’d really be hurting,” he says.