While high school woodshops are disappearing at an alarming rate nationally, this small school located in rural North Carolina is looking to expand its new woodworking program.
It’s said that when the bandsaw leaves the building, it’s never coming back and neither is the woodshop program it was used in.
Sadly, this adage has proven applicable time and time again at high schools across America where woodworking programs have been axed because of budget cuts, classroom space reallocations, the difficulty to find qualified instructors, or other reasons.
That’s why against the backdrop of this disturbing national trend, it’s worth celebrating what’s happening at Columbia Early College High School in Columbia, NC. Just two years ago, the high school hired Ben O’Kelley to help launch a woodworking program. This spring, O’Kelley helped six of his students earn their Woodwork Career Alliance (WCA) Sawblade certificates.
Starting Up a Woodworking Program
Columbia High School is located in a remote rural area about an hour from the Atlantic Ocean is the only high school within the Tyrell County Schools. According to USA Today, student enrollment was 172 during the 2018-19 academic year. Ninety-eight percent of those students were considered “economically disadvantaged” and qualified for free lunches. But despite their financial challenges, 95 percent of Columbia’s students graduated, slightly higher than the state’s average, according to USA Today.
O’Kelley said he was hired because the district’s school board saw an opportunity for students not planning to attend college to learn skills that would allow them to pursue a career in the trades. “There are a lot of manufacturing companies in our area looking for skilled help,” O’Kelley said. “Our hands-on program prepares them to enter the job market.”
Prior to coming on board at Columbia, O’Kelley taught woodworking for 10 years at John A. Holmes High School in Edenton, NC. “I grew up using my hands. I took woodshop and construction, built stuff around the house, and worked on cars,” O’Kelley says. “I went to school to get a degree in architectural design but realized I wasn’t content to sit at a desk. So, I became a woodworking instructor instead.”
During his stint at Holmes High School, O’Kelley learned about the WCA. He liked the fact that the WCA’s skill standards have been vetted by the woodworking industry. He successfully trained to become a WCA accredited skill evaluator during a summer in-service program focused on career technical education for North Carolina teachers.
O’Kelley said his experience teaching woodworking courses structured around the WCA’s skill standards is one of the reasons he got the Columbia job. In getting Columbia’s woodworking program up and running, O’Kelley recommended that the new program become an EDUcation member of the WCA.
Columbia currently offers students two levels of woodworking as an elective. Each course meets five days a week for one semester. The courses are open to students of all grade levels with the caveat that they must first pass Woods 1 to take Woods 2.
In Woods 1, students get an overview of basic woodworking machinery along with a strong emphasis on safety. Their projects are all assigned by O’Kelley such as a bandsaw box and a small bookshelf. Students can also earn the OSHA-10 Construction certificate, which includes training on job-site hazards, hand and power tool safety, and more.
In Woods 2, students learn to read plans and tackle more complex projects, including building a nightstand. They are also given more freedom to choose projects that they can use such as gaming tables and surfboards. “I just kind of guide them,” O’Kelley says.
In addition, Woods 2 students work toward earning their WCA Sawblade certificates. That requires passing an online test of fundamental woodworking knowledge and measuring skills, plus passing hands-on evaluations for setting up and operating standard woodworking machines including a table saw and jointer.
O’Kelley’s course description posted on Columbia’s website, notes, “My goal is to keep the ‘book work’ to a minimum as (the) majority of the topics and skills can be learned through the hands-on activities. However, student behavior, safety, and equipment will dictate when and how often projects will be used.”
O’Kelley said he has overall enjoyed the challenges of creating a new woodworking program from scratch. The biggest exception of course was the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We had about 30 students for the year split between Woods 1 and Woods 2,” O’Kelley says. “The fall 2020 semester was all remote, live-streamed on Google Classrooms. I wasn’t able to offer the Sawblade certification then because they couldn’t come to school and they didn’t have the tools needed at home. It was a struggle.
“The spring semester was a hybrid schedule. Students would come to school some days and those that chose to stay home could come in after hours,” O’Kelley continues. “The six kids who got Sawblade certificates this spring included one student who studied remote and would come and see me after hours to work on his projects. Those were the first six students in our program to get their certificates,” O’Kelley says.
Another challenge that O’Kelley confronted early on came after the district purchased new woodworking equipment but then ran out of funds to build a classroom to house it. As a result, the new equipment was placed in storage and O’Kelley’s woodworking classes shared space and older model equipment with the school’s agricultural program.
That’s about to change, though, because of a partnership with the nearby Pocosin Art School of Fine Craft. Pocosin was awarded grant money to renovate its building, including adding new space for a woodshop that will be used by Columbia students during on weekdays and for adult programs on weeknights and weekends.
O’Kelley said he was able to provide input for the new woodshop, including interacting with the architects of the project. The machinery that was purchased for the Columbia woodworking program will be moved from storage to Pocosin. O’Kelley said students should have access to the new facility sometime this fall.
“The center is within walking distance of school — about two or three blocks,” O’Kelley said. “Pocosin is putting in dust collection and the school district is providing the woodworking equipment that’s been waiting to be used for the past two years.”
O’Kelley says it was great to return to some sense of normalcy this past spring. “Students were only in class a couple of days a week and they were wearing masks, but most importantly they were able to be here and make things.
“I’m really looking forward to giving the kids bigger, more in-depth projects this fall,” O’Kelly adds. “We’ll have a lot more space when the Pocosin woodshop opens. I know that many of the students are looking forward to that as well.”
Survey results to be presented at 2021 Executive Briefing Conference.
Woodworking Network and the Woodwork Career Alliance of North America (WCA) have joined forces to conduct a ground-breaking survey exploring the woodworking industry’s top workforce development issues.
The main objectives of this benchmark study are three-fold:
- To assess the U.S. and Canadian woodworking industries’ challenge to find skilled production employees now and in the short-term future.
- To gain insights into how woodworking companies currently train their production employees.
- To determine what resources and programs the WCA might provide to help woodworking companies better recruit, train and retain skilled production employees.
“The challenge to hire workers and develop their skills is anything but new,” said Harry Urban, publisher of Woodworking Network. “We hope this study will not only help us better understand the extent of the woodworking industry’s skills gap but even more importantly, shed light on what types of things individual companies and the industry at large might do to close that gap.”
“We greatly appreciate the opportunity to partner with Woodworking Network on this very important research project,” said Scott Nelson, president of the WCA. “We developed woodworking skill standards and a credentialing program to provide pathways for people to pursue and grow woodworking careers. The responses to this survey will help WCA finetune current programs and develop new ones that will better suit the needs of the North American woodworking industry.”
Highlights of the study’s results will be presented by Patrick Molzahn, director of the cabinetmaking program of Madison Area Technical College during the Executive Briefing Conference, Sept. 8-10, at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colo. The results will also be published in FDMC magazine and online at WoodworkingNetwork.com and WoodworkCareer.org.
The organizers strongly encourage all owners and managers of secondary wood product manufacturing companies to invest 10 minutes of their time to take the survey. All respondents will qualify for either or both of these discounts:
- $100 discount on registration for the 2021 Executive Briefing Conference.
- $125 off the $250 annual WCA MANufacturing membership fee for new or renewing members.
CHICAGO — Mimbus Inc., a creator and distributor of immersive simulators for manual skills training, announced its planned participation at the AWFS Fair in Las Vegas, taking place July 20-23.
Mimbus Inc. will showcase its immersive solutions 100% dedicated to training for the woodworking industry at booth #1979.
Visitors to the WCA booth will experience live demonstrations of the Virtual Reality solution SimSpray for wood painting, get exclusive insight into the latest features of the Wood Ed products for carpentry training, and learn how the software Vulcan by Mimbus can analyze in real-time the assessments of professional training to better control the training experience and ensure trainee skill achievement.
“We very much look forward to participating in the AWFS Fair 2021 in Las Vegas. It will be the first trade show this year where our team will participate onsite again,” explains Sebastien Bru, head of Mimbus Inc. “We will be present thanks to the support of the Woodwork Career Alliance of North America, a trustful partner for several years now, committed to improving skilled trade training development, like us.”
Members of the Woodwork Career Alliance will be on hand to discuss how woodworking companies can incorporate the WCA Skill Standards and Passport credentialing program to strengthen their training programs.
“We greatly appreciate our ongoing partnership with Mimbus,” said Scott Nelson, President of the WCA. “Virtual reality is a tremendous tool for instructing students and new employees on the safe operation of equipment used in our industry. I encourage educators and woodworkers attending the show to stop by the booth and see the potential of these systems first-hand.”
The AWFS Fair brings together the entire home and commercial furnishings industry, including manufacturers and distributors of machinery, hardware, plastics, lumber, construction materials, and other suppliers to the furniture, cabinet manufacturers, and custom woodworkers.
Additional information about the AWFS Fair 2021 is available at awfsfair.org.
About Mimbus Inc.
Founded in 2011, Mimbus revolutionizes vocational training, by providing the instructors with innovative tools allowing to train their students faster, in a totally safe way, and with lower costs. Specialized in the learning of manual skills, Mimbus offers a range of nearly 15 virtual training solutions covering the learning of about 20 manual trades, all of them connected to VULCAN, the unique platform that tracks, controls, and adapts the student learning path for more efficient training. Mimbus is a French company with a subsidiary based in Chicago, Illinois. mimbus.com
About the Woodwork Career Alliance
Founded in 2007, the mission of the Woodwork Career Alliance (WCA) is to support workforce development for the woodworking industry, which includes certification and training of new and existing woodworking professionals as well as students at both the high school and post-secondary levels. Woodworking students and professionals can earn an industry-approved and recognized credential based on observable, measurable standards and evaluations. Every participant in the program starts by purchasing a Passport that will record their achievements as they move through the process. woodworkcareer.org