Getting Educated: Skilled Trade and Crafts Professionals
"We are a big part of our schools and a big part of our communities. Everything we do is for the kids." - Carter Foshee, Electrician, Broken Bow, Oklahoma
Two of the highest paying, yet most demanding school support profession groups are Skilled Trades and Crafts, and Technical Services -- and employees in both job categories must meet the same professional criteria as their colleagues who choose to practice outside of the school system.
For example, employees in Skilled Trades and Crafts usually participate in some form of specialized training for their profession -- be it plumbing, electricity or ventilation. But because they work in a school district, they must also know how to work within a school environment and how to communicate with both students and staff.
Skilled Trades and Crafts
3 Myths about Skilled Trade and Crafts Professionals and Technical Services Professionals
Myth #1: "Working for a school or school district is easy."
Bill Snow, a Maintenance Mechanic and Carpenter in Neshaminy, Pennsylvania, says he left construction to work for a school district because he liked the benefits and the flexibility. But, he says, that doesn't mean the work is easy. Today, he spends most of his days remodeling and modernizing old school buildings and facilities. "Most importantly, I upgrade classrooms," he says. While the work is similar to what he used to do, Bill and other trade professionals who work for schools face an additional challenge: How to keep aging buildings humming and healthy with fewer dollars in today's supply and maintenance budgets.
Cutbacks in these budgets means leaky boilers, outdated electrical networks, and inefficient heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems in many of America's schools. Our Skilled Trade colleagues are working hard to fix them. Bob Lepak, an electrician in Cheltenham, Pennsylvania, is one of them. Several years ago he became concerned about safety when on one of his rounds he noticed a fire hazard -- "circuit breaker panels that are rated at 15 amps, but are pulling 60 to 70 amps through the wires and won't trip."
He alerted his school district, and wrote to his Congressman.
Even today's newer schools are feeling the heat as demands for innovative teaching methods and assessment techniques mean they must be equipped with everything from adequate space -- for small- and large-group instruction -- to wiring and air conditioning for networked technology. It goes without saying that skilled trade employees must be masters in this new way of working.
John Lynch, a heating and air conditioning technician for Clark County, Nevada schools, is part of a specialized team that is responsible for the climate control of 250 schools in the Las Vegas area. "We're busy all the time with airflow problems, replacing units and working on temperature control problems," he says.
But unlike his peers in private contracting firms who usually just work one job at a time, Lynch has a lot of "windshield time" -- driving between schools every week that are more than 90 miles apart. The rapid spread of computers and information technology has also increased workloads for Technical Services employees, such as computer operators and systems analysts.
In addition to solving computer problems or planning and developing new computer systems, it's not uncommon for a systems analyst to have to upgrade an outdated network system for a building that was wired before the World Wide Web revolution.
Myth #2: "These jobs don't require specialized training or professional development."
Employees in both Skilled Trades and Crafts and Technical Services need specialized training to do their jobs well and keep up with changing technology.
Electricians, for example, enjoy one of the higher paid fields with a solid future, as schools become even more dependent on consistent and well-maintained supplies of electricity. But electricity is still dangerous: Electricians must constantly stay informed about safety procedures and new techniques.
That's why electricians in most states participate in apprenticeship or journeyman training programs that involve course work and on-the-job training -- usually under the direction of a licensed electrician.
The programs are typically run by such unions as the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers or the National Electrical Contractors Association. Most programs take four years to complete and candidates must attend nearly 160 hours of classroom instruction and 800 hours of practical training per year.
Most plumbers are also certified, and complete apprenticeship training that consists of five levels. The training requirements for learning on the job and at school are a minimum of 1,800 hours per level. About 80 percent of this time is spent learning practical skills on the job while the remaining 20 percent is devoted to classroom instruction to learn the theory and technical requirements of the trade.
For a school's Technical Services employees -- those who keep data processing up-to-date, or bring school news to the community, or facilitate student learning -- new technologies mean a new way of working. Schools today are looking for professionals with a broader background and range of skills, including not only the technical knowledge but also skills in communications, problem-solving and possibly art or graphic design.
In fact, many of the jobs in the technical services field promote communication. Through the improved use of the schools' computers, these professionals can enhance communication not only for and throughout schools, but to students and their parents, as well. Promotion of school successes can be showcased on the school's Internet, or via pamphlets created by a school's graphic artists and audiovisual and public relations specialists.
Myth #3: "These jobs are performed in isolation and don't affect student achievement."
It doesn't matter what they do -- electricians, plumbers, carpenters or computer operators, web technicians, or Internet specialists -- all of these important ESP play a vital role in the success of today's schools and student achievement.
For Pennsylvania's Bob Lepak and his colleagues in Skilled Trades and Crafts, safety is a top priority.
"Adequate maintenance is essential to quality education for students," he explains. "That means clean schools free of contaminated air, asbestos, and electrical hazards."
Technical Services team members frequently interact directly with students and teachers. For example, the computer technician may host a procession of classes that come to work on writing projects, social study activities and math skills, or run weekly workshops for teachers and other staff who want to learn software programs on their computers.
Like their other ESP colleagues, these professionals also care about the children and communities where they work -- like Pennsylvania's Bill Snow. After Hurricane Floyd devastated portions of the nation in 1999, this school carpenter organized a group of electricians, plumbers and others who volunteered their time to fix houses that had been hit.
"Our small town, Neshaminy, is on a creek and many people didn't have flood insurance," he explains. "We just worked to put people's houses back together, including many of the district's employees."
Carter Foshee, a master journeyman electrician from Broken Bow, Oklahoma, was recently honored by NEA for helping his ESP colleagues gain opportunities to participate in the decision-making that affected their own rights as employees and promoted the welfare of schoolchildren.
On his own time, Foshee organized communities throughout Oklahoma to reject privatization efforts, often times traveling distances of up to 260 miles to hear education employees' grievances and help them protect their jobs and gain a greater voice.
"We are a big part of our schools and a big part of our communities," he says. "And everything we do is for the kids."
Foshee, a father of five and also a community fire department leader and youth activity organizer, says that students are his most important constituency. Speaking to his colleagues at a recent NEA Representative Assembly, the former NEA ESP of the Year told them, "If you haven't already been, in the future you will be an angel in some child's eyes -- for as long as you remain part of the public education system."
When Maryland's Barbara Thompson became president of the Frederick Association of School Support Employees (FASSE) three years ago, she vowed to do something about the "separateness" she had observed among ESPs.
Members of the various job groups tend to keep to themselves, she says. "We needed to find how we were the same instead of how we were different."
The one thing that united them? Their interest in professional development.
So with help from the Frederick County Public Schools and Maryland State Teachers Association (MSTA), Thompson organized a support staff professional development day to unify her colleagues.
Today, the event has become an annual gathering where ESPs network and build their skills through workshops on leadership and communication skills, resume writing, legal issues for ESPs, school safety, and workplace stress, among other topics.
The organizers try to offer sessions that appeal to a variety of job groups, says Barbara, an administrative secretary at Twin Ride Elementary School and now former president of the local association. Staff from MSTA, UniServ directors, members of FASSE, and representatives from the school system facilitate workshops.
The local also negotiated financial support for a professional development day into its contract and the school system provides $2,000 for the event. FASSE also received a $1,500 grant from MSTA.
"This event exemplifies what we should be doing in this county, and that's learning from one another," says Jack Dale, superintendent of Frederick County Schools.
Barbara adds that the day shows nonmembers how FASSE supports ESPs. "I want them to know how special they are, and I also want them to know that as an organization we recognize that there is a hunger for personal and professional development."
Because technology is ever-changing, technical services employees must participate in ongoing staff development to keep up with current trends and technology innovations in their respective fields. For example:
Skilled Trade and Technical Services Resources
The CCI (Contaminant Control, Inc.) Industry Links Web page is a gateway to information and regulations on chemicals, material safety data sheets, and environmental hazards such as mold, asbestos, and lead.
The Lee County, Florida school system offers tips for reducing school energy consumption.
The National Electrical Code Internet Connection is a web site provided by Mike Holt Enterprises.
You can find everything you need to know about the National Electrical Code at NEC Digest.
Sherwin-Williams' Web site for painting contractors has a wealth of painting information, including solutions for common painting problems, and material safety data sheets.
There are thousands of free software downloads and reviews at Download.com.
About.com's Focus on PC Support provides PC troubleshooting resources.
Find Macinstosh Troubleshooting solutions at Macintosh Crash Tips
United Visual provides tech tips and technical help for audio-visual equipment.