Don Cunningham: A Signing Day for the Stars of Tomorrow’s Workforce

By Colin McEvoy on December 29, 2017

This column, written by LVEDC President and CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on December 27, 2017. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

It’s that time of year when we start to learn about star high school athletes committing to colleges and universities.

The really good ones have been recruited by dozens of schools. Their decision is often awaited by many and reported on the front sports page.

High schools host “signing days” where student athletes announce their commitments and sign letters of intent. It’s a well-earned day of pride and celebration for the player, their parents, coaches, the high school and the college or university. A verification of success for all involved.

Far from the media glare and the cheering crowds of the Friday Night lights, there’s a different group of highs school seniors at all three of the Lehigh Valley’s vocational and technical schools. The best of them have worked just as hard as the athletes during the last four years to master their skills.

They will be welders, electromechanical technologists, precision machinists, carpenters, electricians, and auto technicians. Some will go to college. More will go straight into the workforce. The goods ones are in as much demand from employers as star quarterbacks, point guards and goalies are by colleges.

Manufacturing and technology-driven industries are thriving in the Lehigh Valley. One of the main ingredients to their success is talent, just as in sports.

We are fortunate that we have three high-quality vocational and technical high schools and two great community colleges in the Lehigh Valley. Without them, we couldn’t keep attracting the manufacturers looking to grow and come here.

In just the last month, two of our largest, existing manufacturers, Mack Trucks and Victaulic, announced major expansions of their operations. And, yes, they are heavy manufacturers, making trucks and pipe valves with large, skilled unionized workforces. The kind of manufacturing that one is often led to believe doesn’t exist anymore in America.

Just as successful high school sports teams have good “feeder programs” — youth or middle school teams that train players in skills development and understanding their system — employers need the same type of programs.

“It’s like the NFL draft here in the spring, we can’t send enough kids out there,” said Kurt Adam, director of career and technical education, at the Lehigh Career and Technical Institute in Lehigh County during an advisory committee meeting this month with employers and business and industry leaders.

Lehigh Career and Technical Institute, commonly known as LCTI, is a school for 9th to 12th grade students, located adjacent to Lehigh Carbon Community College in Schnecksville. The kids at the school come from all nine school districts in Lehigh County.

LCTI is a sprawling campus with a half dozen buildings that offers nearly 50 specialized vocational and technical training programs. It currently enrolls 2,367 students with capacity for about 400 of them to also receive their academic courses at the school as part of its Academic Center. Most of the students attend a half-day of specialized training at LCTI and the rest of the day at their home district for academic instruction.

LCTI is looked at by many as one of the best vocational and technical training schools in the United States. It’s kind of like being the Alabama of college football.

“There are companies that would take every senior we have,” Adam said.

And just as college coaches know where to go to find talent, so do the employers.  The business and industry partners at LCTI reads like a Top 20 college football ranking of Lehigh Valley companies: Lutron, B Braun, Bosch Rexroth, PPL, Air Products, Mack, Boston Beer, Nestle Waters, Ocean Spray, and another dozen.

Bosch Rexroth recently donated $30,000 to the school to help upgrade information technology and computer hardware and software. Many of the employers are active in the classroom and involved in refining and developing changes to curriculum.

LCTI is an example of the strength of regionalization. There is only one such school in Lehigh County. All of the districts are partnered with LCTI creating a stronger funding stream. Northampton County divides its eight school districts into two vocational and technical schools, the Bethlehem Area Vocational-Technical School, BAVTS, in Bethlehem Township right next to Freedom High School, and the Career Institute of Technology, CIT, in Forks Township, located around the corner from major employers Victaulic, Follett, Crayola, and dozens of smaller manufacturers in nearby industrial parks.

Both BAVTS and CIT offer less than half the programs of LCTI. There are 24 programs at Bethlehem for students from Bethlehem, Saucon Valley and Northampton school districts. CIT offers 20 programs for students from the remaining five districts of Easton, Wilson, Pen Argyl, Bangor and Nazareth.

Bethlehem currently has 1,333 students and is operating at 91 percent capacity. CIT, the smallest of the area’s schools, has 669 students.

One of the biggest challenges, particularly at CIT, is recruitment, getting middle school kids and their families to understand that employment awaits high school graduates even without a college education if they have attained the right skills. Technical and trade skills are in such high demand right now that students can earn from $30,000 to $70,000 in the right occupations with the right skills.

In order to help turn the tide at CIT, new executive Adrianne Jones has embarked on a marketing campaign, enlisting the help of business and industry members. Her target is the middle schools, the kids, the parents and, maybe, most importantly the guidance counselors. There is no marketing position at the school so Jones and her administrative assistant are learning how to use Facebook, YouTube, while writing website and developing brochures on each program.

“We can’t succeed unless we do a better job of laying out the career pathways and opportunities to kids at a younger age,” Jones said at her recent advisory committee meeting, attending by managers from Victaulic, Follett, and other employers and leaders. Employers need these schools to succeed and to grow.

One of her strategies takes a page from the sports playbook. This April, CIT will host a “Signing Day” at each of its sending districts to showcase its seniors and where they are going to work or college upon graduation.

It would be nice to see that on the front page.

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