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World, Here They Come

By Ann Wallace
Idaho Business Review

Although our model of public education doesn’t appear on the outside to have changed much since it was established in schoolhouses centuries ago, education policy has been pushed in many directions over the years by the economy, politics, competition from other nations, and the spirit of the times.

This year, as high school seniors all over the country receive their diplomas, the times are calling for a radical change from the aspirational model of the four-year college degree. If they’re paying attention, students and parents have been hearing about a host of alternatives to that path. Employers have made it clear they need specialized skills that can’t necessarily be found in the traditional classroom.

Some of those graduates who were paying attention will soon be earning certificates through a new program started by Idaho’s Division of Professional/Technical Education or PTE, soon to be Career/Technical Education. Working with PTECH, a northern Idaho program that helps high school students earn the credentials and skills they need to start work after graduation, PTE expects to issue its first “microcertificates” this summer to 10 graduating seniors who will apply for jobs at Quest Aircraft Company in Sandpoint.

Leaders with the Idaho PTECH Network recruited the 10 seniors earlier this year through their short-term workforce development program and steered them into online coursework in areas such as safety and blueprint reading through North Idaho College.

The PTECH Network started in the 2014-2015 school year and is supported by a grant from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation.

Through PTECH programs, high school students enroll in community college after 10th grade. The 10 students in the Quest cohort attend Forrest Bird Charter School, Sandpoint High School, Clark Fork High School, Priest River High School, and Wallace High School. Nine are male; one is female. They’re different from PTECH’s initial target audience; they were approached about the program as seniors after Quest contacted PTECH officials looking for workers who would fit in a specific area tied to Quest’s manufacturing method.

The 10 will learn technical and soft skills in August that will help them fit into the workplace culture. Then, they’ll apply for jobs at Quest. Their work won’t be for credit, but their microcertificates will show Quest they have acquired the skills the company needs. It’s part of PTE’s “skill stack” certification program. There is no cost to the students; PTECH paid for the NIC training.

Quest doesn’t pay PTECH to prepare the students, but Jason Eddy, Quest’s senior vice president of operations, said the aircraft company promotes the micro certificate program around the state, and helped NIC develop the curriculum.

Theirs will be among the first microcertificate badges issued through PTE. Boise State University has issued some for leadership development and service learning, and Boise State’s Responsible Business Initiative is developing badges for its participants now.

The difference between a badge and more common measures of achievement, such as a high school transcript, is that the badge shows the holder has mastered a skill, not just spent the hours in the classroom. In addition to the aerospace program, a forest products group is working with North Idaho College on badges for programmable logic control, a top priority for wood products manufacturing companies that need people who can run complex and very specific machinery.

“Those industries are saying, ‘We want something we can recognize,” said Wendi Secrist, who runs PTE’s badge program.

The students aren’t guaranteed jobs, but they’ve visited Quest and spoken to the mid-level managers who helped screen the first cohort of students. If hired, they’ll make starting pay of $12.50 an hour. Quest has 271 employees, almost all of them in Sandpoint, and is expected to hire 35 more in the coming year.

“The micro certificate program would improve the quality of the candidates applying,” said Eddy, of Quest. “Students who completed the micro certificate program would have a demonstrated interest in the aerospace industry, resulting in better job retention; understand drawings and quality requirements; and be able to contribute to production much faster due to previous training.”

PTECH’s program includes some technical training but also prepares students with skills like teamwork and communication, said Alan Millar, PTECH’s executive director. He’d like to see the program replicated around the state.

“We’ve had many employers tell us, ‘If you help me find someone who can fit my culture, I’ll pay you for training and education,’” he said. “It’s a bigger challenge to find someone who has those soft skills than it is to find someone who has a technical degree.”

Anne Wallace Allen is editor of the Idaho Business Review.

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