Manufacturing a local renaissance

Teachers learning how to ready students for high-tech job market
Jul. 15, 2014 @ 04:58 AM

In James McMurtry's 2006 blue-collar anthem "We Can't Make it Here," the singer laments the decline of American manufacturing, with lyrics that equate making things with making a good life. In 2010, a "Rolling Stone" critic called it the best song of the decade.

But people in Lee County, where the workforce is about three times more dependent on manufacturing than in the average American county, don't need a song to tell them manufacturing losses hurt individuals and the economy in general. So as manufacturing becomes more high-tech, some educators and manufacturing professionals are trying to better prepare students for modern jobs.

"Advanced manufacturing is what's going to bring jobs back to North Carolina, buddy," said Henrietta Jutson, a technology teacher from Fayetteville who is spending her summer doing research in Lee County at machine design company Mertek Solutions. "If we don't do it, China will."

Jutson and a co-worker at Jack Britt High School, science teacher Melissa Harris, received grants to spend their summer studying high-tech manufacturing here — and specifically at Mertek, where workers not only need to know how to weld and saw but also how to write computer programs and control robots. The teachers will then return to their school with a formal plan for incorporating more CTE (career and technical education) material into core subjects such as science and math classes.

"We have a lot of that in Lee County Schools," Mertek President Jerry Pedley said of the cross-curricular teaching. "But we don't have enough enthusiasm about it."

For example, the two Fayetteville teachers are Kenan Fellows, a statewide grant program that aims to increase K-12 teachers' knowledge of science and math careers and provides stipends for thousands of dollars. Only one local teacher, Lee County High School math teacher Jerica Morgan, was accepted to the program; she's spending her summer in Raleigh studying nanotechnology.

"There were very few Lee County teachers who applied for the Kenan Fellows program this year," said Aaron Fleming, the director of CTE in Lee County Schools. "And I don't know why."

But Fleming said efforts already are under way — such as an apprenticeship program with Caterpillar for high school students — as well as upcoming plans like an engineering academy at Lee County High School, which will help prepare students for modern jobs.

Fleming said he's especially excited about the engineering academy, which will begin this coming school year along with a finance academy; Southern Lee also already has a hospitality and tourism academy program. And on Thursday, the company that organizes those academies at schools around the country announced it had partnered with a number of businesses that now promise to give priority for jobs and internships to people who went through one of the academy programs.

Fleming was at the Washington, D.C., meeting where the announcement was made, and he said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan also spoke, praising the program. So Fleming is optimistic. But he said he does want to see more buy-in from local business leaders since students are now more likely to be courted by national companies like J.P. Morgan, Verizon, Cisco and others who will support the academy graduates.

"... We want these students to remain in Sanford and help our economy," Fleming said. "We have a good product we're putting out, in students who don't need to go away to college before finding work. Because these students are ready when they come out — or if they're not, they definitely will be after a two-year degree."  

And the job news from the academy program isn't the only good news local schools have received lately. The district also won a $525,000 grant to fund science training sessions for 75 elementary school teachers over the next three years. Carol Chappell, the district's director of elementary education, said it will build on efforts to give young students a stronger science education.

"We have made great progress at the elementary level this year in science," she wrote in an email. "Our percent proficient [on state standardized tests] at grade five almost doubled this year as compared to last year. I think with this grant, we can keep the momentum going."