Changing the stigma of vocational education

Matt DeYoung • Oct 17, 2017 at 2:00 PM

Roger Curtis sang the praises of several programs aimed at helping local businesses and schools work together during his speech to the Grand Haven Rotary Club on Monday afternoon.

But his message was clear — there’s still plenty of work to be done.

Curtis is the director of the Michigan Department of Talent and Economic Development. His goal is to figure out ways to address the lack of qualified candidates for the state’s manufacturers and other trade professions.

Curtis explained that Michigan is in a dire situation today in that many businesses across the state want to expand, but can’t because of a lack of skilled workers.

“We’re doing incredibly well at getting a lot of new companies coming to Michigan, but their No. 1 concern now is talent,” he said. “Why would I relocate here unless I’m assured to have the talent pool I need to run my business?

“We have a lot of work to do,” he continued. “There’s a talent gap, a career awareness gap. We need to let kids know the options are out there. Not everything needs to be through a four-year college.”

Curtis strongly encouraged businesses and schools to begin working together to create programs that allow students a chance to see what kind of careers and educational options are available other than the traditional four-year college plan.

“Ottawa County in particular has some amazing programs,” he said. “The futurePREP'd project-based learning that they have in the schools, the P.R.I.M.E. program with Grand Haven schools and Shape — those are very innovative, cutting-edge for our state. The bar is set very high here, and they want to continue to do it better. I want to support that, and also to take some of these best practices and take them to other places.”

One thing Curtis said is holding back the progress is the stigma that those who don’t attend a four-year college must not be intelligent enough to do so.

“A lot of the issues have been created by parents, teachers, counselors — all of us, really, have downplayed the professional trades and up-played the four-year route,” he said. “That’s great — we need engineers, doctors, computer science majors. We need all those things that kids are going to a four-year college for. But candidly, we’ve stereotyped for years … you’re smart enough to go to a four-year college and you’re not. We’ve stereotyped these kids and we’ve stereotyped the professions, and it’s very unfair. Now we’re trying to unwind that conversation, trying to unwind the misconceptions.”

Grand Haven Area Public Schools Superintendent Andrew Ingall listened intently to Curtis’ speech. He noted that his district has taken great strides to coordinate with area businesses to give students more post-graduate options.

“We’ve had a lot of teachers participate in futurePREP'd … which pairs students and teachers with local businesses to solve real-life problems,” Ingall said. “We love those experiences. Many of those take place during the summer, so we’re working closely with the Chamber (of Commerce) to see if we can bring more of those experiences directly into the school year.”

Ingall noted that the district’s S.T.E.M. (science, technology, engineering, math) programs also offer great opportunities to partner with area businesses.

“We feel we can create partnerships with the folks in our manufacturing sector,” he said.

Last year, the Grand Haven school district partnered with Shape Corp., SME and the Michigan Manufacturers Association to create the Partnership Response in Manufacturing Education (P.R.I.M.E.) program, with the goal to provide the opportunity for Grand Haven High School students to receive an education with curriculum that will help them develop skills needed in the manufacturing workforce. Shape Corp. invested more than $300,000 toward the collaboration.

“All of these groups have come together to deal with and provide a viable and game-changing solution to an issue that manufacturers around the country and here in West Michigan face,” said Shape Corp. Vice President Doug Peterson. “The good news is that manufacturing is back and it’s cool again. The bad news is, the challenge is that we’ve had a significant talent gap between what manufacturing needs today and in the future to continue to grow and be a vibrant employer here in the United States, and specifically in West Michigan.”

More information can be found online at www.michigan.gov/ted/

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