Shop Class to the Rescue

By Peter Schrappen


According to the Institute of College Access & Success (TICAS), Washingtonians on average fair a little better and owe $24,804 when they leave college. On the flip side, Washington is not faring well with the number of students who graduate from high school. The state ranks 38th in high school graduation rates according to TICAS. Washington’s marine industry is not immune to these national trends, and they directly affect the care your boat gets when it’s serviced at your favorite yard.

RBHS students, Core Plus program, 2016.

Rainier Beach High School’s Core Plus 2016 afternoon class. All juniors were placed in summer internships by the Port of Seattle, Vigor, Filson, Virginia V, and Status Ceramics.

“In some ways, our education system is broken,” said Dave Gering, Executive Director of the Manufacturing Industrial Council (MIC), which is located in the SoDo area of Seattle. “We are doing our kids a disservice with the ‘college for all’ mantra of the past 20 years, and we need to build better pathways that help lead students to careers.”

Gering is the de facto leader of Core Plus, a Washington state-wide program focused on restoring high school shop programs. A coalition of nonprofits, trade associations, Boeing, JP Morgan Chase, and others have coalesced around a simple concept: Offer diverse learning opportunities to high school students and give them avenues right after graduation to high-quality jobs that address tremendous needs in boating and maritime as well as the aviation, construction, and agriculture sectors.

“What maritime is facing is exactly the same dilemma Boeing struggles with. How do we find high-quality workers over time to keep manufacturing world-class planes and boats in the Northwest?” said Gering.

Core Plus Students Jamal & Kary

Some could argue that maritime, and recreational boating specifically, are facing more acute workforce shortages in Washington than their maritime colleagues across the country.

“Washington state continues to lead the country in boat sales, and these boats need to be worked on somewhere with high-quality systems experts,” said George Harris of the Northwest Marine Trade Association (NMTA).

“There are a couple of reasons that this area is so conducive to world-class boating. Looking outside, there’s the scenery, of course, but there’s also the 69 boatyards in our state and the 28,000 marine tradesmen and women working on everything from recreational boats to large cargo vessels,” he said.

While some readers may be surprised to see his reference to large cargo vessels and recreational boating in the same sentence, Harris has recently embraced the thinking that manufacturing and repair work across the sectors are fundamentally the same core competencies.

“Due to our investment in Core Plus, I now see the close link between what Boeing’s workers do and how our boat builders go about building their latest project. It’s the same skill set, but applied and catered to differently, says Harris.

“All that said, our state and the entire marine industry is facing a continuing graying of the workforce,” he added. “We simply do not have the young people learning the skills in school that will ready them for employment in a marine trade. But that reality is changing and changing fast both in the state capitol and around the state.”

Career and technical education, and specifically Core Plus, have gained traction with NMTA members and lawmakers in a short amount of time. Scott Anderson of CSR Marine operates two boatyards in Ballard and Des Moines. He has reaped the benefits of such an education.

“It was love at first sight (when I first heard about Core Plus),” said Anderson. “I heard Dave Gering speak about offering shop classes to kids in school, and I said to myself and anyone who would listen, ‘That’s my story.’ Had I not had shop classes, I would be in prison or maybe even dead by this point,” he added.

“Supporting Core Plus has become my number one cause. I’m not getting any younger and to help establish a curriculum (under the guise of Core Plus) for the future employees of CSR and the other recreational boating businesses is where I’m investing my time and money,” he said. Some of the needs in the $4 billion recreational boating industry are greater than others.

“We hear from employers all the time that they struggle to find talent,” said Harris of the NMTA, the nation’s oldest and largest marine trade association. “The problems are real, and they are two-pronged: How do we fill jobs today in the industry and how do we build a school system for the next generation of workers?”

One way that NMTA, the owners of the Seattle Boat Show at the CenturyLink location, tackled this struggle was to create a job fair to coincide with the boat show. They gauged the interest of NMTA members and nonmembers.

“We were blown away by the level of interest, the amount of open positions, and the quality of the employment opportunities. On the other side of the equation, we couldn’t believe how hard it was to drive traffic to the job fair,” said Harris. At the first year’s job fair, there were 49 attendees. 150 people turned out for the 2015 job fair. “It’s hard to fill 250 openings when you only have 150 job-fair attendees.”

NMTA and other groups, such as the Washington Business Alliance and the Manufacturing Industrial Council, have laid out a multifaceted plan to direct young people toward marine trades. First, Anderson and other experts are developing a free curriculum that teachers can use on Day 1 of the school year.

Boeing and NMTA have been integral partners. “Boeing has invested over $750,000 in developing curriculum, and NMTA’s early arrival provided a key piece in a gigantic puzzle,” Gering said. Core Plus and career and technical education in general rely on relevant curriculum at their foundation, but success is also predicated on several other pieces. That’s where Colleen McAleer and the Washington Business Alliance come in. McAleer has assembled a coalition that will be ready when the Legislature convenes in January 2017.

“While the state legislature continues to grapple on general K-12 education funding issues over the past few years, funding for career and technical education has not kept pace. We’ve actually seen schools scale back these programs” said McAleer. “Fortunately, the dialogue is changing in Olympia and around the state that these careers are rock solid and needed to keep our state competitive with the rest of the world.”

“It’s so bad out there to find workers,” Anderson adds. “When I meet with prospective employees, my interview is pretty short. I hand them a mirror and if they can breathe into it, they are hired,” he said, laughing. He’s struck by how hard it is to find young people who show up on time, day in and day out, but he’s not giving up. “How can I? My story is the story of so many young people out there, but our education doesn’t meet the students where they are. I was struck by how teachers were the ones who enjoyed going to school every day. I was the opposite. I couldn’t wait to get out of school. But I now realize that the teachers weren’t teaching to me but to those like them that enjoyed Shakespeare and that other stuff.”

Gering has learned that getting Core Plus to stick will involve some missteps and starts and stops. Simply put, he’s tackling an important issue, testing what works and always adapting to the current reality.

“There’s no doubt that career counselors are part of the puzzle,” he said. “I wished we would have talked to them sooner. The simple fact is that they are overloaded by the number of students they try to serve. We need to get them much better information about industrial career opportunities.” Gering now sees counselors as a part of the coalition needed to turn the tide.

“At the end of the day, we’ve been fortunate. We have cultivated the relationships with the right people, like State Superintendent Randy Dorn, who already believed in these educational opportunities. Plus, we are way better at how we message our priority to lawmakers.”

Gering said lawmakers seem to have little interest in the term “workforce development” but, “once we started talking about (messaging around) educational opportunities and providing pathways for young people, we started making progress,” he added.

“The business community should approach this topic with a community priority to expand and enhance learning opportunities for kids and their families. That leads us to a broad expanse of common ground with educators and with parents. The greatest asset we have is our shared interest in helping kids. If we can maintain that community focus, the workforce issue will take care of itself.” Gering could be referring to 18-year-old Gene Ruff, who approaches every conversation with the thoughtfulness of a college professor. Plus, he has a handshake that will have you reaching for the ice pack.

“School wasn’t always my thing,” Ruff said. “I’ve been a gearhead since middle school and was always looking for the next chance to help my uncle work on cars.” He credits the hands-on experience of Core Plus for his recent employment at NMTA and now Boeing. “I can’t imagine life without Core Plus. Who knows what I’d be doing, maybe working at Old Navy right now.” Instead he’s climbing the ladder at Boeing and remains intrigued about working in the marine trades down the road. “The welding skills at Boeing are the same used in maritime. If and when the door knocks from an NMTA member, I’ll be there to open it,” said Ruff, who has finished his first month at Boeing.

According to Gering, Ruff’s rise is typical and part of a larger conversation going on across the country.

“You’ll hear debates at the federal level about ‘certificate-based learning.’ That’s what we are all about. I just got off the phone with education leaders in Ohio. The state of Ohio wants to implement Core Plus and we’re meeting next month with the education superintendent for Oregon,” Gering said. Gering does not pinpoint one specific reason for the spread of Core Plus, which has gone from two schools to more than 40 in five years around Washington. “We had a plan and stuck to it. I would speak once a quarter to a new audience, and we’ve built our campaign that way. You name the association of educators, and I’ve probably spoken to them about Core Plus.”

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