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Business North - Around The Region - Duluth & Superior Newspaper
'Pathways' offers viable alternative to traditional college route
A pilot program is underway at Rice Lake High School (RLHS) that addresses the needs of an often overlooked portion of the student population: students who, for whatever reason, are reluctant to commit to post-secondary education. The RLHS ‘Pathways’ initiative will include many tracks—from agriculture, to business, to manufacturing—all focused on giving students skills that can be immediately applied in the workforce. Years in the making, groundwork for the first ‘welding pathway’ began in earnest this spring, thanks to the added efforts of Technical Education Instructor Chuck Carr, and the cooperation between Rice Lake School District and local manufacturer Rice Lake Weighing Systems (RLWS).
Since May of 2013, RLHS instructor Chuck Carr has been undergoing continuing education of his own, working closely with RLWS Engineer, Kevin Larson, to learn the specialized skills required of an RLWS welder. While mastering these skills and immersing himself in modern manufacturing culture, Carr has also partnered with RLWS to develop a comprehensive welding curriculum for the high school.
In the new welding pathway, students will be able to complete up to four levels of welding-focused coursework in as little as two years. Pending budgetary and equipment needs, RLHS hopes to enroll students as early as fall of 2014.The Pathways goal? Get students the skills necessary to earn an entry level position, in a field of their choosing, upon graduation. The hope? Put graduates to work locally, at companies like RLWS.
The Path to Pathways
RLHS Principal, Curt Pacholke, has a background in Career and Technical Education, and with that, one focused goal. “We want every kid graduating from high school to be career or college ready. We started by identifying careers that students would be interested in, and also where the need is in our community. Rice Lake Weighing Systems was one big stakeholder that we wanted to partner with.”
Family owned RLWS is one of Rice Lake’s largest employers and a strong supporter of the community. To date, the ‘Rice Lake’ brand includes eight separate business divisions throughout the United States, Mexico, India, and Europe. Among the company’s most recognized products are the SURVIVOR® Truck Scales, North America’s number one selling truck scale brand, known widely for its superior design and construction. Building these scales requires advanced welding techniques that aren’t always covered in detail through traditional certification. Therefore, RLWS requires that prospective welders pass written and practical exams before hire. The company’s demand for skilled labor almost always surpasses supply.
Pacholke adds, “Mr. Brown and I started meeting with RLWS and talking about some areas that we could improve; one of the areas we talked about was welding. It’s an area where RLWS has a need for employment, and also an area where we could improve our curriculum.”
Larry Brown, District Superintendent, has been a leading supporter of the Pathways program since the beginning. “This is about making education more relevant for our kids,” Brown says. “I’ve taught in this kind of environment before. That’s why when Curt (Pacholke) brought this to me, I said, ‘Yes, we definitely need to pursue this.’ We’re just very fortunate that Chuck (Carr) is willing to take this on, because it takes an instructor who wants to do it and a principal willing to support it.”
RLHS’s mission is “to prepare each individual to become a knowledgeable, resourceful, resilient, and respectful member of our global society by providing a challenging education in partnership with families and the community.” And with Pathways, they’re certainly achieving it. “Global-level skills need to be what we teach our kids,” notes Pacholke. “As technology improves and skills change, we need to be current with those techniques. The only way we can be current is if we know exactly what globally competitive businesses like RLWS are doing.”
The student benefit goes beyond getting first-hand knowledge of current industry practices. By integrating Pathways with other school-to-work courses like the school’s COOP program, students may have the opportunity to test drive a career path before making a costly investment in education. “Knowing what you don’t want to do is sometimes just as important as knowing what you DO want to do,” says Carr. As student-loan debt can be a long-term financial burden, a try-before-you-buy approach can be especially appealing.
Of course, there is no true replacement for on-the-job experience, and Pathways students will be able to start acquiring that experience three-to-five years sooner than their college-bound classmates.
Upon graduation, these young adults will be able to harness the relationships they’ve established within the community to begin a skilled career path and earn a living wage. While Pathways doesn’t eliminate the need for post-secondary education for a well-rounded career path, it does make that education more relevant. With a solid understanding of their chosen path, a student may be more likely to complete the education he or she pursues.
From RLWS’s perspective, investment in its future workforce is critical. Human Resources Director Jake Nolin explains the company’s challenge in finding enough skilled labor. “We’ve looked at apprenticeship programs, we’ve looked at companies who’ve developed their own schools, and many other short-term intensive training programs. Pathways is filling a void, and giving these kids an opportunity to come out of high school with the knowledge, skills and abilities to do an entry level welding job.”
Instructor Chuck Carr has enjoyed his time spent training with the staff at RLWS, and thankful for the opportunity to train with RLWS staff. “Kevin is going to be a great resource for me as I begin the program. This whole thing is really going to help me be a better teacher.” In closing Carr remarks, “I’m just really looking forward to teaching kids these skills. In fact, I have kids right now that are just as excited as I am about the program and the opportunity it presents.”
Submitted by Jessica de la Cruz, Rice Lake WeighingPrevious Around the Region Articles:
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