Teachers Go Back To School

August 11, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — Earlier this month, a group of middle school and high school teachers came together for a three-day pilot program of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce.

The program, Educator in the Workplace, sends the teachers into various work situations to learn how their schools’ curricula might be modified to help students in a variety of jobs. The program was planned by the chamber’s Education and Workforce Development Committee and the Kent ISD, and has received strong interest by both teachers and the companies they visit, said Tara Walkotten, public policy coordinator for the chamber and part of the committee.

“Originally, when we were developing the program, we were only going to have teachers in the business for a day. When we went back to the businesses that agreed to participate, they said, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa — we need them longer than a day,’” said Walkotten. “(The businesses) have completely taken this on. They’ve written their own schedules. …

“We wanted more than just an opportunity for (teachers) to watch. They’re going to actually be on the floor working alongside the workers.”

Alticor, Granger Construction, Wolverine Coil and Spring, Consumers Energy and RCM Technologies are the companies involved with the pilot program, but Walkotten said that many other businesses had stepped forward to participate in the program, and may have the opportunity to do so if the program continues.

“They are looking at it as a learning experience just as much as the teachers are,” said Walkotten of employers. “I think they’re seeing it as an opportunity to help shape the education of the next generation. They know what is necessary to be successful in their businesses.”

Another reason companies are eager to participate is that they see it as a way to attract and retain young workers. The hope is that by getting their company name in front of students while they are still in school, students will realize that they have in-state options when they start looking for jobs.

“It’s kind of been one of Granger’s goals: How do we attract more talent to the construction industry?” said Jim Conner, Granger Construction’s West Michigan regional director. “There’s a shortage in a lot of ways.”

L. Kevin Douglas, internship program manager at Alticor, agreed: “It’s about bringing talent into West Michigan. You really need to let the students see the diversity of employers here. Students sometimes don’t see that and say, ‘I want to get out.’

“So I want to say, ‘Hey, look — look at all that’s here; look at all you can do.’ People are going to be retiring and we have to figure out a way (to fill positions). It’s almost like marketing. … We want to help them understand: Here’s Granger, here’s Amway; so when they do start their careers, when they’re at a career fair or what have you, (they’ll say), ‘Oh, I talked to Granger. I’ve heard of Amway.’”

The group of teachers discussed both “hard” and “soft” skills that are declining in the upcoming work force, and ways to instill those skills in students who may not learn them at home. “Hard” skills are defined as math, science, writing and technical skills. “Soft” skills have more to do with interpersonal skills and personality traits, manners, being friendly and well-spoken.

The group focused on students who may not attend a four-year college after high school and how, as teachers, they might be able to demonstrate how “hard” and “soft” skills are vital to the students after high school, and that there are more options than attending a four-year school.

“We have to realize not all kids are going to go to college anymore,” said Walkotten. “Too much of education, I think, is tailored toward those kids that are going on to a four-year university or even a community college, but it simply isn’t that way anymore. Kids are going into more of the technical opportunities, whether it’s mechanical or computer science — doing those short two-or-less year programs, then going on to the work force. We need to be ready to work.”

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