By Jonah Beleckis
The Janesville Gazette
ELKHORN, Wis. (AP) — Michael Thomas has been working in industry for most of his life.
It started in high school, when he worked as a machinist during the summer.
Later, while running shops, he could never find qualified people to fill open positions.
“We were always looking for machinists. We were always looking for welders,” Thomas said. “Sometimes we would take a chance on people that looked really good or showed a little promise, and we’d hire them with no experience and train them.”
For 20 years, Thomas has wanted to see that change. Now, he’s tackling the problem from the bottom up. Thomas is teaching welding and machining classes at Elkhorn Area High School.
Even before these latest efforts, Thomas was hiring interns from the high school and working with the school’s technology-education department. When the school expressed interest in developing welding and machining classes, he helped organize the class.
Thanks to referendum money, the school could buy the necessary equipment, and Thomas could design the classroom space, he said.
But Thomas said there’s a “severe” shortage of technical-education teachers in the state.
Chris Trottier, the school principal, acknowledged the shortage. That led to the choice of Thomas as the teacher.
“Mike was a very active partner,” Trottier said. “He knew our community. He knew where we were and where we wanted to go. Mike’s demeanor, his approach and his interaction with kids and adults just demonstrated the skills, knowledge and disposition that we knew was a really good fit for us.”
Trottier and Jason Tadlock, superintendent at Elkhorn, said the Elkhorn schools are working not only to get students into higher education but also to ensure they have abilities and experiences that can prove useful along other career paths.
“This is the expansion and development of our technology and engineering classes and is a snapshot into an overall mission and vision from the district and community to ensure our kids are career ready,” Trottier said. “We are making sure we are feeding the employer pipeline with quality employees with credentials.”
For many years, high school had gone without offering courses in welding or metalworking, Thomas said.
Students were going to Gateway Technical College in Elkhorn to learn welding but were less likely to try on their own to seek out this sort of instruction, Thomas said. Now, high school students can “get their foot in the door,” he said.
Over the summer, Thomas worked with contractors to make sure the school had space for the needed equipment. School officials had to wait before acquiring certain supplies they had no place to put them.
Even when the class had been set up, Thomas was still unsure if students would sign up.
“They (students today) are not real hands-on like I was when I was young,” Thomas said. “Seeing the reaction and their interest once they start getting on equipment and seeing what it will do is really positive. They want to know. They want to learn. They want to do, which is awesome.”
More than 60 students have signed up for welding this school year, and about 45 students are registered for machining.
Even with his experience in education, Thomas was surprised by how much behind-the-scenes work goes into teaching. Building a curriculum, for instance, is no easy task.
Trottier said now that the school has a curriculum, equipment and an instructor in place, he expects its offerings in technical instruction to become only greater in number.
“Let’s start ensuring our kids are getting industry-based certifications,” Trottier said. “Let’s get them the skills so we can start placing them in youth apprenticeships or co-ops in their senior year.”