NTC’s School to Work program helps Hazel Park students succeed in school, life and work
For years, students have been told that the path to prosperity is a four-year college degree and that there are limited opportunities available in the automotive industry. However, the reality is that college isn’t for everyone, and there is a future in automotive manufacturing.
With manufacturing continuing to be Michigan’s largest sector, a new program called School to Work encourages students to consider a career in the automotive manufacturing field. The program is a partnership between the UAW-Chrysler National Training Center and Hazel Park Schools.
“Students may not be straight-A students and maybe college is not for them, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a mechanical aptitude and wouldn’t succeed in a skilled trade career,” said Shawn Fain, former co-director of the National Training Center. “Our focus is naturally on the shortage of skilled trade workers in this country, along with the lack of employees with manufacturing knowledge out there. As the company has been expanding and been hiring thousands of employees over the last few years, when we are getting people off the street we don’t know exactly what we are getting. Needing these skills all over this country, we decided to try and start this program. It was actually two to three years in development to get set up and then we launched it in the fall of 2016.”
Participants are juniors and seniors from Hazel Park High School and Hazel Park Alternative High School who attend regular classes in the morning at school, and spend their afternoons at the World Class Manufacturing Academy in Warren in the afternoon. Students earn high school credit as well as on-the-job experience.
Hazel Park teacher Christopher Benedetto said that as juniors, the focus of the training is on life skills like public speaking, workplace etiquette, punctuality, conflict resolution and problem-solving skills.
“These are qualities that will help with any type of job,” he said.
Seniors dive into more complex concepts, studying specific career paths and participating in hands-on lessons. Students are introduced to pipefitting, sheet metal work, robotics, electrician skills, pneumatics, drywall, carpentry and more, said Benedetto.
“Students get a taste of a lot of different fields,” he said. “As they explore various career choices, they see the aptitude they have for these areas and learn what they like and don’t like about them.”
Stacie Steward from the National Training Center was involved in developing the curriculum. She said students also learned about labor, company and union history, so they had an understanding of the past while helping to shape the future of manufacturing.
The UAW-Chrysler National Training Center’s School to Work program recently graduated its first class of 12 students and interest continues to grow. Due to its intense nature, approximately 20 students are selected each year based on their application, one-page essay and other criteria.
Through their studies, students are adjusting the trajectory of their lives. Shy students are opening up to others and sharing. Students that weren’t on a path to graduating enrolled in summer classes. Those who frequently skipped class discovered the importance of showing up on time. Students with an uncertain future developed a passion for a specific career path – the list could go on and on.
While students are growing as individuals, they are also impacting each other as a team. Together every afternoon for five days a week throughout two school years, students share their lives and what they have discovered is that while each of them deals with unique and sometimes difficult circumstances, all have special talents that they bring to the team.
“We’ve seen some huge transformations as students have flourished,” said Benedetto. “Students are super supportive of each other. They have created a safe atmosphere where they can be themselves among friends.”
Automotive officials say there is a major shortage of workers who have a general knowledge of manufacturing and manufacturing processes. This program looks to bridge the gap for automotive employers while preparing students for future careers.
The UAW-Chrysler National Training Center’s School to Work program reminded students of the rich opportunities available in manufacturing during a trip to the Chelsea Proving Grounds, where students discovered how government and industry standards are met by watching vehicle testing.
Intense job training
While the School to Work program makes no promise of employment after graduation, students do leave with a solid understanding of automotive systems along with technical knowledge that can help them gain apprenticeships and entry-level employment.
Through intense training, on-site observations and skills challenges, these determined students discovered that there is no limit to what they can achieve, said Steward.
This was perhaps never more evident than when students were tasked with making a public presentation. Although some students were understandably nervous at the thought of giving a speech to an auditorium filled with UAW-Chrysler staff members, they all displayed impressive skills and incredible grace under pressure as they mastered the skill of communication.
By constructing birdhouses with hand tools and no battery-operated devices, students put the concepts they learned about into action. Through the project, they gained a practical application of building an item by hand as well as the value of patience. For many students, it was the first time they had used a measuring tape.
“We take for granted, when I grew up, I had a grandfather who had a garage. We would go out and cut wood and make things. I was always using hand tools as a kid growing up. A lot of these kids their hand tools have been a cell phone and a computer or an X Box. A lot of things that we used to take for granted we have to realize that this new generation is not experiencing these same things,” Fain said.
In addition to practical skills, students are taught good citizenship. They learn about the responsibilities of voting and being involved in their community through service, said Steward. They receive instruction on writing resumes and are taught the importance of diversity in the workplace.
This variety in the curriculum helps keeps students engaged in learning, said Benedetto. Students may start the afternoon by writing in a journal, then transition into listening to a lecture, being a part of a role-playing activity, taking a test, participating in a hands-on lesson or going on a field trip.
As students move between different topics, the teachers also change, which helps to hold the students’ interest, said Benedetto.
“Everyone has a different teaching style,” he said.
For Benedetto, he said personally the program has made him even more aware that some students need a little more attention from adults who can offer them encouragement and inspiration.
Steward said she has a renewed respect for the younger generation. While high turnover rates have impacted the industry in recent years, she said she now has a better understanding of what new hires are going through so their struggles can be addressed.
“This is one of the best things I have ever been involved in,” Steward said. “We challenge them and they challenge us. Three kids originally weren’t even supposed to graduate when they entered the program, but they turned their lives around and it’s been great watching them all thrive and succeed.”