FALL RIVER — The skills needed for most careers change year to year, sometimes even faster. What doesn’t change is the foundation of employability, said Diman Regional Vocational Technical High School Superintendent Thomas Aubin.
As Diman prepares its students for today’s workforce, and the jobs of the future, it all begins when students apply to the school.
“It starts with some of the most basic things that people don’t even think about in terms of employment — which we refer to as employability — ‘yes, no, please, thank you and may I,’” said Aubin. “It starts with, ‘how do I address myself in a social setting.’”
Since about 2002, the school has had more than 600 students apply for admission yearly, 375 are accepted to the freshmen class. Of those applicants, many are third- or fourth-generation family members. It’s not uncommon to find former students still working at the jobs they started out in as part of their cooperative education, said Aubin.
Kevin Lazaro, cooperative education coordinator, has made it his mission to not just find students a job, but to place them in a position that’s also a career pathway. “I think we’ve done that well,” said Aubin.
When he meets with students about their cooperative opportunities, the first thing Lazaro does it ask them what they want for careers, not just jobs.
“I firmly believe that if we’re grooming kids from day one with the fundamentals Mr. Aubin talked about, the end game should be just as high order thinking as well,” said Lazaro.
The reality, they said, is a high number of students will not stay in their selected field, but the school still needs to make sure students have the skill set for a career.
“When I say, ‘yes, no, please, thank you, may I’ there’s a method to my madness,” said Aubin.
In working with Fortune 500 companies to place students in cooperative education jobs, Lazaro said companies overwhelmingly are looking for students that have transferable skills in this world of rapidly changing technology.
“We can’t stray from what we know has been successful, the skills that led to success in the 20th century are the same skills that lead to success in the 21st century: teamwork, cooperation, flexibility, innovation and drive,” said Aubin.
One aspect of grooming the future workforce is the culture within the school. When Aubin and the rest of the staff see students in the hallways they make eye contact and greet them. And the students are expected to reciprocate. In a time when students’ attention is often focused on video games, phones and other devices, Diman made the decision to separate students from their devices by banning cell phones.
“What we’re trying to do is get them away from that insular existence of the person and the device because we know there’s a global market that requires a great deal of interaction, sometimes with groups of individuals at the same time,” said Aubin. “Everything we do is to make them career- and college-ready... beyond the classroom, beyond the laboratory. It’s every aspect of what they do.”
The key, he said, is getting the students to buy into something they’re not accustomed to, but if they buy into the instructors and the people, they’ll buy into the philosophy and the concepts. As an example, Aubin pointed to three students who went to Washington a few months ago to lobby for science education funding.
“On the first day they were nervous, by the third day they were in charge of the room,” said Aubin. “We try to put the students in a position to be leaders and let them roll.”
Putting the students out front closer to home at school open houses and other events also helps them develop the higher order thinking of being able to process information and present it to an audience, another skill that will take them far beyond the classroom, they said.
The school offers 16 programs including electronics, machine tool technology, automotive, carpentry, medical and dental assisting, culinary arts and plumbing. They’re in the process of applying to the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to add a web developer program in 2018. A medical assisting program is in the works for 2019, and in 2020, supply chain logistics.
Aubin said the school is trying to move away from the concept of vocational education to professional education, because that’s what the school’s providing: a professional education, whether students move on to a career or to college. In most cases, it means both, he said.
“The term grease monkey is absurd. I tell people open your hood and see if you can work on it. That’s why they’re paying ASE trained mechanics $100 an hour,” said Aubin. “There’s no more light lifting in the world of professional education anymore. The challenge we face is the speed at which things are changing.”
Students at the school spend two weeks in technical education alternating with two weeks of academic education. The two are far from mutually exclusive with knowledge gained in English, science and math courses becoming more and more essential to the skills acquired in the technical classes. “The magic is between the instructor and the student. It is unbelievably challenging to teach the same students for six and a half hours a day,” said Aubin of the passionate teachers.
While the magic may happen between student and teacher, what Aubin described as “functional obsolescence” looms in the environment of the technical classes that have not kept pace with the changing workplace. For the seventh year in a row, the school has filed an application with the Massachusetts School Building Authority for a new school.
Every student is required to gain their OSHA 10 safety certification in freshman year. In sophomore year, they take a career readiness course, in which they begin to build technical writing samples, a resume and portfolio. They’re eligible to for cooperative education work in the third trimester of their junior year and senior year.
Companies from as far away as Boston, Milford and North Kingstown, Rhode Island contact Lazaro about the cooperative education placements for the school’s students. For the second year in a row, the school hit a new record with placements: 325 students were placed in coops this year topping last year’s record of 317 placements.
Proof that they’re on the right track at the school is evidenced in the number of companies that are ponying up to pay for students college tuition, even allowing student to work part time in their cooperative jobs instead of full time while they go to college, said Aubin.
“These companies are realizing the need for this young talent. And the way to get them is to get them early and invest in their college tuition. Support them and take them through the ranks. By the time the some of these kids graduate college they’ve been with that company for six years,” said Lazaro. “By the time they’re 30, they’re running a major division.”