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Tech Ed is more than just shop class

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Most people don't know what Tech Ed is and, if they do, they think it's shop class. It's much more than that.

At New Richmond High School, Ken Bessac, Ken Kerr and Walt Campion make up the staff of the technical education department. Classes vary from the traditional tech ed classes, such as woodworking, welding and building construction, to non-traditional classes like engineering, graphic design and video production.

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There's a real disconnect when it comes to the attitude about technical education, Bessac said.

"Parents usually think two things, they think their kid is going to college so they don't want them taking our classes or they think their kid is going to college, so they want them enrolled in (advanced placement) classes," he said.

Bessac said that while he agrees that other classes at the high school are important, he believes it's important for students to take a wide variety of classes to get a feel for what they'd like to do with their lives.

"I like to call it test drive," he said. "If you don't test drive how will you know?"

Brian Miller, technical education teacher at the middle school, agreed.

"I try my best to reinforce that not everyone has to go to a four-year college," he said. "But I tell them that they should go to a two-year college or get some sort of training."

Miller said he clips articles he comes across to show his students the expansive opportunities in the technical education world.

"These aren't dull, dirty jobs anymore," he said. "They're high tech. There's a stigma attached to tech ed and people think tech ed is dirty. That's not always the case. There are a lot of different jobs available."

Kerr said students have an incredible opportunity at NRHS because of the slew of classes offered.

"Colleges and even some of the staff here at the high school want you to go to (a four-year) college and figure it out as you go," he said. "If you don't know what you're going there for... Would you go to the grocery store if you didn't know why you were going? How goofy is that?"

Bessac said it's fine to graduate with a four-year degree in sociology, but what are recent graduates going to do with that degree?

"They have no idea," he said.

Kerr agreed.

"They talk about the unemployment rate all the time, well people are hiring, they just can't find workers with the skills they need," he said. "We need to break that paradigm that (four-year) college is an end-all. Our technical schools are geared to the industry here. Colleges will have to start doing the same if they want to survive."

For example, Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College currently has an employment rate of 91 percent. That means 91 percent of recent graduates were able to find a job within six months of graduating from WITC. Of that 91 percent, 72 percent found a job related to their training at WITC.

"You're not successful because you have a four-year degree. You're successful because you have skills," Bessac said.

One New Richmond graduate went to a two-year technical college and is now making more than $100,000 a year, he said. In another case, Michelle Killian, a product of NRHS' technical education department, started working with Engineered Propulsion Systems (a company set on designing the first diesel airplane engine) as an intern her junior year in college. She's now employed with the company as one of their engineers.

"That's huge. They just landed a big government contract," he said.

Engineering and technical jobs are not for everyone, Bessac said.

"These classes can help you figure that out too," he said. "How would you ever know?"

Kerr said it's a shame more students don't register for the technical classes offered through NRHS.

"If kids would realize the stuff we have here, the training we can offer... We have a Haas Mill. That's a $40,000 machine that is used in the local industry," Bessac said. "They can take our classes and go to WITC and already know the basics of how to use it. They're getting exposed to a ton of stuff here."

"Kids just have to give us a try," Kerr said.

At New Richmond Middle School, students in sixth and seventh grade are required to take technical education. In eighth grade students have a choice of enrolling in year-long Spanish or the encore classes, including technical education.

"This is where they get their first taste of technical education," Miller said. "Most of them haven't even used a wrench before."

At the middle school, sixth-graders build tape dispensers, screwdrivers or candle holders; seventh-graders design and build CO2-powered race cars.

"They spend a few weeks in the computer lab designing the cars and then a few weeks making them," he said. "Then, we have a race. They really like that."

Kerr said the technical education department at the high school was known as a dumping ground for students looking to take easy classes, but he argues that any of his classes are just as difficult as many of the other classes offered at NRHS.

"They're not as easy as what they think," he said.

Many of the high school's engineering classes look more like a science or math class, requiring students to calculate mass and density of objects that might be developed for production.

Bessac said many of the engineering classes offered through the high school also qualify for college credit at the Milwaukee School of Engineering.

"You can take our class and leave here with a college transcript that's fully transferrable," he said.

Classes offered through the technical education department at NRHS include: auto mechanics, basic auto, small engines, machine tool, welding fabrication, intro to manufacturing, engineering, woodworking, graphic design, building construction, cabinet making, video production and digital electronics.

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Jackie Grumish
Jackie Grumish has been a reporter with the New Richmond News since 2008. She holds degrees in journalism and fine art from Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Ill. Before coming to New Richmond, Jackie worked as the city government reporter at a daily newspaper in Aberdeen, S.D. 
(715) 243-7767 x243
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