A four-year college degree is not the only path to employment. The reality is that college is not for everyone. It’s not even needed for many careers.

Many high school graduates are choosing the pathway to a career instead of college, and area schools and businesses are working together to make this a possibility for students.

Leading that effort is a cooperative agreement between several area high schools and US Tool Group, a Farmington-based supplier of industrial products and tool sharpening and reconditioning services to the aerospace industry and other manufacturers.

More than a year ago, the West County School District began to form a partnership with US Tool to train students to learn skills needed to get a job after graduation. Denny Bouse, a West County graduate and tooling operations manager for US Tool, approached West County High School Principal Eric Moyers to see if the school would be interested in such a program. Moyers and WCHS Technology and Engineering Instructor CJ Wright agreed and felt there was a strong need for students to gain valuable job-specific skills.

The planning process took about a year. Wright worked 120 hours at US Tool last summer to gain basic knowledge and operation of machines at the company. He learned how an average day began and ended for a US Tool employee.

In the meantime, Wright began working with students this school year in a class called Machine Tool Tech Training. They watched a plant tour video to learn the overview of tool regrinding capabilities and also took a first-hand tour of US Tool. In addition, students have learned overall tool and machine safety; standard and metric measuring system; measuring instruments; general print reading and basic geometry; and definition and function of basic and specific tools.

Two machines were delivered to West County in December: an in-mill sharpener and pointer and a more advanced machine to sharpen a variety of drill bits.

Students have responded well to the new program at West County.

“These potential jobs are a great thing for our small community,” said Wright.

Wright has already made plans to turn the one-year class into a two-year program in which he will continue teaching the basics and add more advanced skills.

“I think this partnership is a great opportunity for some of our students who might not go to college,” said Wright, “because it offers a great chance at a good career.”

Wright continued, “US Tool is looking for quality applicants with some experience and I think they will find that West County will be positively contributing to their workforce over time.”

West County sophomore Zac Boland said Wright’s class is a great career choice.

“I’m glad to get to know a lot about US Tool for a possible career.”

Junior Thomas Gould agreed. “For me, this is an opportunity to explore different fields of work.”

Daniel LaPlant, who plans to attend UniTec Career Center in Bonne Terre, said, “This is the same thing I will do when I go to UniTec. This will help my career.”

Joseph Crump, a junior, is in the machine tool class at UniTec. “This class is an extension of my training at UniTec, and it has been very helpful.”

This program – called the Industry and Education Partnership – has expanded to include North County, Central and Farmington as active participants. Bismarck and Fredericktown are also now on board with the program. Additional businesses involved in the partnership include Lee Mechanical, Forte Products and Cap America. Mineral Area College, UniTec and local state politicians have also become involved in the partnership.

“We are meeting with our districts to determine how we can best work together for their students,” said Jamie Vinson, who handles employee engagement and organizational development in human resources at US Tool.

Although many of the schools started this process around the same time, each school is different on how the program works for them and at what speed they move.

“There is no set program that we follow,” Vinson said. “We adapt to the needs of the district and their students.”

According to Vinson, US Tool was founded with two goals, to provide a great place to work for their employees and to provide a valuable service to their customers. That has been the business’s focus for the past 60 years and is still their emphasis as they continue to grow. It has now grown to be the largest cutting tool reconditioning firm in North America with nearly 1,000 dedicated professionals in 120 facilities across the U.S., Canada and Mexico, including the corporate office and manufacturing center in Farmington.

Last spring they saw the need in the community for a career path for students who are not college bound. Because of that need, the Industry and Education Partnership was created.

“Our mission for this program is to form an education and industry partnership with the assistance of state and local agencies that create a curriculum, career path and skill development for students in production and manufacturing,” said Vinson.

She said the goal of the program is that students will have an education, transferable skills and experience with regional businesses that result in a job offer upon graduation. The program does not focus on US Tool Group, but instead focuses on the community and its students.

“We are privileged to have the support of many of our elected officials and are excited for the opportunities that this partnership will create,” Vinson said.

US Tool recently delivered machines to the North County School District.

Katie Bockman, North County’s assistant superintendent, attended the first meeting with this partnership. She brought Jennifer Huff, education specialist for the middle and high schools, into the planning stages. They also prepared over the past year to help their own students work toward success in this program.

Overall, the hope is that as the partnership achieves success in this endeavor, other businesses will join.

“We recognized, as educators, that our primary focus is always on college bound students. We drive everyone, regardless of interests, toward post-secondary opportunities. Working with local industry enlightened us as a group to know there are options for our children beyond formal education. If businesses, educators, and the community collaborate to find productive options for our children, we only strengthen our entire area. We are building pathways to the future for all of our students,” said Bockman.

“The partnership between industry and education will thoroughly benefit our students and this community,” said Huff. “This is a new and exciting endeavor for us.”

The first student to participate in an apprenticeship in the partnership is Bailey VanVacter from North County. He will gain experience in the manufacturing area with the hopes of obtaining a full-time position upon graduation.

“The partnership between US Tool and North County High School will allow us to enhance our curriculum with the tools and skills that will assist students interested in joining career and technical fields upon graduation,” said Huff.

She added that the partnership recognizes the majority of students do not attend or complete college.

“We need to provide those students with the educational background that will ensure a successful transition to the career and technical fields available to them in our community,” Huff said.

Huff continued, “We hope to create learning pathways that will project those students into the fields of their choice.”

She said this includes courses in industrial arts, material science, math, marketing and accounting.

After working closely with the companies, the group has discussed creating certifications based on the assessed skills in the classroom that correlate with the company and demonstrate that students are prepared for the entry-level position.

“The overall goal of this program is to build a culture through community partnerships, expand student opportunities and prepare students for real-world problem-solving,” said Huff. “I am excited to be a part of this ground-breaking partnership between industry and education. My hope is that it will motivate our students who are not college-bound to focus their energy on being successful in class so that they can compete and qualify for an internship during their senior year.”

Zack Mills, of Central, said US Tool acknowledged “a need for basically getting into schools and getting their future workforce ready, beginning in school.” He said things started happening for Central last spring as well.

Mills is part of Central High School’s JAG program. Mills works with Mark Casey at the high school and Tim McCoy at the middle school as part of the district’s JAG program. He said he and other staff members work hard to get students ready for college and the workforce. When US Tool began working with the school’s counselors, he became a part of the program as well.

“What I’m seeing is the students are growing in their communication skills,” said Mills. “That’s been one of the biggest areas of improvement.”

He also said he feels like students are becoming more comfortable with presenting information and working with other people. He’s noticed big improvements in students’ collaborative skills.

“They’re suddenly thinking about their career development,” said Mills, “and that’s great.”

He said students are now thinking about their future decisions.

Mills said his school’s JAG program had a recent banquet in which they invited a number of employers, and more than 20 came. They have about 40 local businesses with which they’re interested in partnering. The goal is to bring business professionals to class to do mock interviews with students. This would also allow students to gain further exploration in potential careers.

Central students will also complete job shadowing and possibly internships. The school district had their first intern on Tuesday. Allison Stotler will be working in the tool room department at US Tool. She is a senior at Central High School and is the daughter of Linn Stotler and Stacy Stotler.

Mills said some of the area businesses have realized they have an aging workforce, so they have recognized that a great place to start searching for applicants is in educational programs at area schools.

“That’s where this partnership is really going to start to blossom,” said Mills, “and our students will really grow.”

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