The news is out about current and projected labor shortages for manufacturing careers, and the Lehigh Valley is no exception. The need to train and educate the next generation of machinists, welders and mechatronics technician continues to grow every year.

But to get today’s students interested in those careers they need an awareness of them first. Knowing the important role that educators play in influencing a student’s career path, and the fact that some of the teachers are unfamiliar with today’s technical careers, it was time for a re-education of sorts. So a local school district and the vocational-technical school decided to partner on a new one-day program that brought teachers into the technical school’s classroom.

It’s not your father’s vo-tech school

Pen Argyl Area School District is one of five sending school districts to Career Institute of Technology in Easton. Others include Wilson, Easton, Bangor and Nazareth school districts.

Pen Argyl together with CIT took advantage of a teacher in-service day before the school year formally started and used it as a professional development day. About 120 kindergarten through 12thgrade teachers along with guidance counselors from the district’s elementary, middle and high schools attended the first-time program at CIT. Its goal was to provide them with an updated view on today’s careers and to empower them to in turn educate their students about them as career possibilities.

The concept for the event was a team effort including Pen Argyl Area School District Assistant Superintendent Dr. Margaret Petit, Pen Argyl High School Principal Dave Domchek, and CIT Supervisor of Career and Technical Education Eric Kahler.

“The goal of the visit was in part to re-educate the schools’ educators, as well as to build a better relationship with them,” said Kahler. “We estimate that more than half of the district’s teachers had never been to CIT or had not been there in a long time. And vocational-technical education is very different today than what it was like when people my age were in school 20 or 30 years ago.”

During breakout sessions, attendees were divided into groups based on what departments they work in, and each group met with three CIT teachers from three different trade programs. Groups moved in a round-robin format onto the next teacher every 30 minutes. CIT teachers had an opportunity to educate and inform about the goals of their program, what students are taught, what they get to experience, and more. They also discussed what kind of training students would need for different technical career paths, and how the district’s teachers could help prepare them.

In the end, everyone regrouped in the technical school’s cafeteria for a debrief to discuss what they learned and to share their experiences.

Joint learning experiences help students

“One thing that they learned was that more than 50 percent of vo-tech students go on to a post-secondary education either at a trade school or college. Many were surprised to hear that,” said Kahler. “Many of the educators expressed an interest in discovering how they could develop the skill sets that are needed for these technical careers into the education practices with students.”

“The feedback we received from many of our teachers was incredible,” said Principal Domchek. “They saw that CIT does a wonderful job of preparing the students with what they need to know for their chosen career path. I think it helped our teachers to realize that technical careers are a wonderful career avenue for kids, and it helped them also see how they can support their students in figuring out their career paths earlier so they can be better prepared.”

“I think the stigma that vo-tech has endured for many years is finally starting to wear off,” he continued. “College is not a good fit for every kid. Some are just more hands-on and need a career that allows them to do that. But they need the right training for it from the beginning. We want to help them find what they are passionate about and then motivate and encourage them to pursue it. CIT is a valuable asset to our community and I am proud that we send 70 of our district’s more than 500 students to it.”

“Manufacturing is our second largest industry by gross domestic product and 3rd largest employer in the Lehigh Valley,” said Karianne Gelinas, Director of Talent Supply for Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation. “Manufacturing is not an industry of the past with defunct, physically strenuous jobs. Rather, modern-day manufacturing requires increasingly technical expertise to troubleshoot and maintain machinery and produce products. Offering an opportunity for student influencers, such as school staff and family members, to learn about these jobs of today and tomorrow, and the pathways of how to get there, not only benefits students on an individual basis but also the Lehigh Valley in terms of raising our level of competitiveness as a regional economy.”

Expanding the program to other districts

While Domchek says it’s too soon to determine if this will become an annual professional development day for his district, he does encourage other Lehigh Valley school districts to partner with their respective career and technical schools for professional development days like they did.

“It had a powerful impact on our educators and I think everyone was surprised and impressed with the technical components of the programs being taught at CIT,” said Domchek. “Now our teachers can help their students connect the dots in their own education based on what technical career they are interested in. If a student says that it doesn’t matter if they learn math since they aren’t attending college and are instead going to attend vo-tech, the teacher can now explain why math skills are necessary for a technical career and how he or she will use them.”