Through MCPS work-based learning programs students transition smoothly to 21st century careers.
The world is now facing some of the biggest and fastest workforce changes since the Industrial Revolution more than a century ago.
Technological boom, the decline of manufacturing, and globalization are dramatically transforming the types of jobs — some not even imagined yet — we’ll be doing in the future.
But it’s 12:30 p.m. and that future has just pulled up at the Montgomery County Public School’s bus garage in Christiansburg as Hunter Keith, a senior at Auburn High School and Spencer Alderman, a senior at Christiansburg High, arrive in pickups and navy blue work shirts, the first diesel mechanic interns in MCPS’s two-year-old work-based learning program.
Recognizing a gap between the knowledge and skills most students learn in school and the knowledge and skills they actually need for personally fulfilling, productive careers, in 2014, the Virginia Department of Education launched work-based learning programs.
For Keith and Alderman, this internship working in a garage repairing and maintaining buses, trucks, and cars complements their already three years of automotive classroom instruction, giving them hands-on experience that puts automotive theory into context and builds soft workplace skills like personal responsibility, teamwork and problem solving.
“These guys have a better idea, a firmer plan, now than they did in August. Because they’ve been able to have hands-on experience and know what it’s like to be in a shop. It’s allowing them to graduate with a plan. Which is exactly what we want,” Brenda Drake, MCPS Public Information Officer said.
Both Hunter and Spencer definitely have plans: graduate with certification, then move on to University of Northwestern Ohio, a school that grants two and four-year, degrees in occupational professions and applied technologies like robotics, alternative fuels and diesel technology.
The two interns have a lot in common even though they’ve just met: both like history, both say ‘yes, ma’am’ a lot, both are tall in new blue work shirts with their name’s stitched on the pockets, and, at 18, they’ve got similar five-year plans.
“Hopefully in a diesel shop working on big trucks,” Spencer said and Hunter nodded.
But they come to this discipline from different paths: Hunter, from a farming background, has been around heavy-duty equipment all his life. For Spencer, it’s his first time around big trucks.
“I just think it’s interesting,” Spencer said.
They’re both working to pass a difficult test, the Automotive Service Excellence, the ASE, a 10-part certification test. Passing the ASE is “the first step in building a career as a service professional in the automotive industry,” according to the student certification website.
Jason Lawrence, head of the garage and intern mentor, asked them how it’s going. Hunter’s got two more parts to take.
“They’re really hard tests, you really have to study,” Spencer said.
Giving advice to others interested in working in a diesel shop they both said, “Study hard and pass your ASEs.”
But climbing into a bus motor, and seeing the automotive theory in action might make the test easier.
“There’s lots of technology. Most of them are going to electronic stuff. Injectors. You have to mix technology with the motor,” Hunter said.
Technology changes fast and knowledge obsolescence is a danger that certifications help avoid. Lawrence, their mentor, who’s 39, said, “He’s right. When I started it was all mechanical. Everything was mechanical. Now, the major diagnostic tool we use is a computer and computer software to diagnose the issues.”
That these guys are taking the test in high school is notable. Passing all of their ASE’s gives them a full year of experience when they go to find work in a shop.
“And they can get their Master Technician earlier – that certification, and they’re also put one rung higher on the pay scale,” Drake explained.
And following a steady contraction of the pool of technically skilled workers nationally, training has changed too.
“When I was in school, you go straight from high school to technical school or go to work. And that’s where most of the guys – we’ve got a couple of guys that went to technical school, but most just went to work in a garage as an apprentice. These guys, UNOH offers an associates degree. They’ll be ahead of the game.”
With the roar of a pressure washer blasting a bus, standing beside the open back of a bus exposing the motor, the two describe an “an ordinary day” and, like any work-place, there is no ordinary day. They work from 12:30 to 2:30.
“They’ve got five buses a day. They have to do preventive maintenance,” Lawrence said.
“You gotta [sic] check everything. Each bus has a day they have to come in and do preventative maintenance,” Spencer adds. “Really everything. Change anything from brakes to lights on the top.”
They point to alternators and talk about crankshafts and pistons. The three confer with each other when asked what’s most likely to break on a bus.
“This is one of our older buses. It’s 13 years old. State recommends we replace buses every 15 years,” Spencer said.
“Anything can go wrong, but they’re super sturdy,” Hunter said.
“What we try to do is get them to do different jobs. They’ll learn all kinds of different things,” Lawrence said.
For businesses, internships and apprenticeships are increasingly seen as useful workforce development strategies reporting higher productivity, higher retention rates.
“You have to have shop experience before you can be certified technician,” Lawrence said.
Early work-based learning experiences don’t just help kids get jobs; the experiences can help students build crucial job-keeping skills or soft skills.
Many employers report that they want employees who are ready learn, respectful and committed, according to the Virginia Department of Education.
For the business considering taking on interns, Rebecca Mummau, Director of the MCPS Department of Transportation, said she was leery when Superintendent of MCPS schools Dr. Miear, approached the department.
Miear felt that having them work in a setting that would work for them later is so much better than just being in a classroom talking about it, and we’ve been really pleased with these two,” she said.
“It’s been very positive. We work on a car bay and a full realm of experience: tractors, weed eaters, snow blowers, small engines, cars, trucks. They bring a different energy to the shop, it’s been good having them around,” Mummau said.
“What [the school’s] done is that they’ve picked the best two students out of the class – most interested – and hopefully that will continue year after year,” Lawrence said.