Technology Center of DuPage programs build students' STEM skills

As a high school junior struggling in math and language arts classes, Jose Ortiz never imagined that 12 years later he would be immersed in numbers and communications.

Today he is a project manager for Cicero's Development Corporation in Plainfield, a general contracting company specializing in commercial renovation projects nationwide. His days are filled with reviewing submittals, preparing cost estimates, and updating budgets. He collaborates with architects and engineers, explains contracts and plans to clients, and instructs laborers and subcontractors. Projects include the renovation of entire hotels, retail businesses and corporate facilities.

A school counselor at West Chicago Community High School suggested to Ortiz that he enroll in the construction trades program at Technology Center of DuPage as an elective in his junior and senior years. The program's emphasis is on carpentry, but also introduces students to electrical, plumbing, drywall and other building trade skills.

By senior year, Ortiz's skills and work ethic were so solid that he was among a group of students eligible for a two-day-a-week internship through Cicero's. As a result of that experience, owner Sam Cicero offered Ortiz an apprenticeship opportunity after graduation. Earning while he learned, Ortiz became a journeyman carpenter, took online construction management classes and, after several years, found himself in the office, figuring estimates of materials and costs.

"Academic skills are huge in the construction industry," Ortiz says today. "Everything from math, communication skills and problem-solving as a team are very important."

That assertion is echoed by other industry representatives. Carlos Plaza, a blogger for the American Welding Society, wrote in a March 7, 2013, post:

"A good welder needs to have a general knowledge of fractions and decimals just to read and understand blueprints. Several basic principles of geometry, like the measurement and calculation angles, area and volume are also indispensable."

Vince Sticca, director of the apprenticeship training program for the Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters, sums it up this way: "There is not one thing you do during the day in construction that does not involve math."

When asked why more high school graduates aren't applying to apprenticeship programs, Sticca cites the scarcity of high school programs like TCD's construction and welding programs, which prepare students for apprenticeships or related community college programs. He also noted a lack of understanding among students and school counselors regarding the breadth of the industry's career pathways, its academic requirements, and the long-term economic benefits of an apprenticeship.

To address the shortage of skilled young workers in an industry with increasing retirements, CRCC teamed up with CISCO, the Construction Industry Service Corporation, last fall to host "Educator Days." Seventy-five high school counselors and teachers spent two days experiencing hands-on construction projects, employing the technical math skills necessary to succeed in the building trades. The event also stressed the benefits of a four-year apprenticeship compared with a university degree.

When we hear about the "STEM skills gap" (science, technology, engineering, math) in the U.S., we think of a shortage of workers in engineering, robotics, health care and computer science careers. All of these are good 21st century pathways and several programs at Technology Center of DuPage reflect that.

However, the problem affects middle-skill career pathways as well. According to an analysis in 2011 by the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce, the tendency is to focus on the concern for a shortage of STEM workers, "but the deeper problem is a broader scarcity of workers with basic STEM competencies across the entire economy … touching virtually every industry."

The Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters is proactive in addressing the issue. Because a math proficiency exam is required prior to acceptance into an apprenticeship program, the CRCC offers math refresher classes at no cost to applicants.

Career and Technical Education programs are well-poised to help educators and employers address this challenge. Advance CTE, an organization advocating for policies and legislation related to high-quality CTE programs, published a brief in 2013 entitled, "CTE is Your STEM Strategy." It states:

"While a state's CTE programs may not encompass everything within a state's STEM strategy, high-quality CTE programs can provide a strong foundation for and serve as a delivery system of STEM competencies and skills for a broader range of students."

The instructional staff members at Technology Center of DuPage have proactively enhanced the academic skills inherent in each program's curriculum. The past three years, two-thirds of seniors rated their TCD program "excellent or good" for strengthening their academic abilities in math, reading and science.

Jose Ortiz agrees: "The TCD program hands you all the tools you need to succeed."

• Mike Zimmerman is director of the DuPage Area Occupational Education System, the governing body for Technology Center of DuPage and other CTE delivery sites in the region. TCD is the advanced CTE elective campus serving 14 high school districts in DuPage County and Lyons Township. Community members may schedule a personal visit or group tour by calling (630) 691-7572.

After calculating the number of risers and treads needed for a stairway project, Jerry Presley uses a carpenter's square to mark out the cuts on the stringers. Presley is a senior from Lyons Township High School in the construction trades program at Technology Center of DuPage. Courtesy of Technology Center of DuPage
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