By LINDSAY CAREY
Nancy Chiero and Justin Mirante are on a campaign to clear up some misconceptions about “shop classes” that continue to circulate the halls at Southington High School. They’ve heard it from parents and students, and the pair have had enough.
Chiero and Mirante are co-chairs of the school’s Technology Advisory Board. Mirante also serves as the technology department chair, so they both find themselves answering the same concerns over and over again.
Southington High School offers courses in five major areas construction, communications, manufacturing, transportation, and engineering in the technology education department. However, for the last six years the department haven’t been getting high enrollment numbers due to the stereotypes associated with career plans that do not include college.
Mirante said that this stereotype seems to be a state and national trend, even though there are different paths a person can take. Other than going the common four year college route, students can go on to do certification programs, training programs, and earn associate degrees in manufacturing.
“There are so many different options for a career in technology and engineering, but it seems like the stereotype is hard to break—that if you’re not going to college, you’re not going to have a good career,” said Chiero.
Mirante said that a lot of parents don’t believe a career in manufacturing or construction would be right for their child; however, they will support a child going to college for a degree in engineering.
“People don’t think about it. If you’re engineering that means you’re designing something that is going to get made,” said Mirante. “So you have to understand how it’s made, and if you don’t think manufacturing jobs exist, then why are you going to college to be an engineer?”
Chiero said that 60 percent of engineers graduate from college and end up work in manufacturing jobs on the line, because they have to learn what the factory is doing.
“A lot of the students who become engineers, let’s say, won’t take a traditional technology and engineering class because of that stereotype, only to find out that when they go to college they don’t really know all of the details that are involved in engineering and don’t have any of the prerequisite knowledge,” said Mirante.
This is one of the reasons Chiero and Mirante said college bound students kids should be taking courses in all of the technology areas.
“Students have a hard time making the connection between their class work and what they’re actually going to be doing in engineering one day,” said Mirante. “They don’t have the application under their belt to really have a firm understanding of what goes into these different careers.”
The technology department is also a good place for students who don’t know what they want to do after high school to begin to take courses in careers that can lead directly to jobs.
“We curtail to the student who doesn’t have much direction and says, ‘I don’t know what I want to do,’ so try us out. We have a lot of exploratory classes,” said Mirante.
Seven years ago, Chiero said that some SHS faculty sat down with manufacturers in Connecticut, because the companies had a need to hire a new influx of workers.
“They’d need some qualified people to take over for the ones that were sixty and about ready to retire,” said Chiero. “They didn’t feel that they had a group ready to come in or that anyone had any interest, because of the stereotype around manufacturing—it’s a dirty, smelly, noisy environment—and that’s not true.”
Chiero also said that the department has had to work on the misconception that there are no longer jobs in manufacturing, because everything is made overseas in China. Since there is an aging population in this work force, these companies are looking for people they can train.
In an effort to develop a partnership with hiring manufacturers, the Technology Advisory met with five manufacturers in town introduced through Economic Development Office Lou Perillo and asked them for their input on the curriculum.
“We basically said, ‘We want to know what we have to prepare our kids to do,’” said Chiero. “So they came in and looked at our manufacturing classes and told us they needed people with a good work ethic and a solid foundation in math and science and thinking.”
The Technology Advisory board also partnered with construction companies by starting construction board because there were needs for workers in that field as well. Mirante said that hardest thing the board has had to face has been changing the perception of both parents and students.
They address it by making people aware of the opportunities in fields like manufacturing, construction, transportation, communication and engineering.
“People have this stereotype that people who go into construction aren’t smart, but how can you really say that to these contractors who are out building state of the art facilities?” said Mirante.
As a part of its mission to help students explore careers in technology, the Technology Advisory Board sets students up with job shadow and internship opportunities to start them off in a career and pique their interest.
The board has also worked on exposing parents to these different jobs. A few years into the program, the board held a parent’s forum where employers spoke to the parents directly to let them know the needs in these fields and the money it pays.
The board is working on informing both parents and guidance counselors, because they’re major influences as the students choose their courses, which they are currently in the process of doing for the next calendar year.
Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), the commercial construction companies, hire students directly out of high school and train them at the Construction Education Center (CEC) in the evening. Students can be directly hired in areas like HVAC, plumbing, bridge construction, masonry, framing, carpentry, landscaping, etc.
This provides these students with on-the-job training in addition to the courses they’re taking in the evening at the CEC.
“The price is a fraction of what kids are paying to go to technology schools to learn this same type of training for a year, and they’re working and getting benefits and starting their career,” said Chiero.
Mirante also said the department has struggled to break the stereotype that these types of careers are only for men and women do not have a role in technology and engineering. Through certain clubs, students learn from mentors in the field who are breaking down these stereotypes at work.
There is the Women in Science and Engineering Club being run by a school counselor. Last year, this club did some CNC machining, wood work for the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting. They recently built a robotic arm.
There is also the ACE mentoring program after school from 3 p.m . to 5 p.m. with Chris Archer from Newfield Construction who is doing the construction project at DePaolo. Archer has apparently brought in guest speakers like engineers and architects.
He has also helped the students design carry out a project from start to finish. The group built a prototype of a dog kennel with a timeline for completion in mind and also selecting and estimating materials.
They also got to tour DePaolo twice to get a behind-the-scenes look at the construction.
Even outside of clubs, the technology department tries to bring in guest speakers, like owners of companies, workers, former students who are now employed, and college representatives to come in and talk about these careers. The classes have taken to field trips to construction sites and manufacturing companies to see the different careers in action.
“These companies are starving for workers that have good work ethic, the aptitude, and the background,” said Chiero. “The jobs are there.”
Some local companies have even offered SHS students paid internships through Training for Tomorrow with the Southington Chamber of Commerce, and Chiero serves as the internship coordinator. Students have also been able to job shadowed at commercial construction companies.
Chiero said that the Technology Advisory Board is trying to get a feeder program in the middle schools to align the curriculum for grades six through 12 to hopefully spark some more interest.
All of the classrooms in the department were recently painted to spruce up the place and reflect the changes in manufacturing and technology. Mirante said he also went through and changed class names and descriptions in hopes of sparking students interest.
He said that he asked technology office to run a report on how many different students are taking advantage of the program.
“It’s a school of about 2000. We’ll see maybe 300 or 400 different kids, which means there’s 1500 that never even consider us,” said Mirante. “When you look at the ratio of technology and engineering careers out there as a whole, it seems off. It’s such a huge difference, and we are doing a disservice by not allowing them to be exposed to the technology that’s out there. It rules their lives, and it can provide them with so much, but they don’t know.”
With about 50 including employers, teachers, school administrators, counselors, and politicians on the Technology Advisory Board for SHS, Chiero said they have been able to influence other towns like Bristol to set up similar boards. This is at a time when a lot of schools are cutting their technology education departments, because it is an expensive department to run.
However, Mirante said that they received thousands of dollars’ worth of their materials for commercial construction classes from local companies in the field and automotive classes as well as monetary donations.