Seymour High School woodworking students

State of the Woodwork Career Alliance

Avery High School students work toward earning their Sawblade certificates.

Q&A with Scott Nelson, president of the WCA.

2020-21 will go down as a time many of us would like to forget but will always remember. It may not have been all bad, but it most certainly was not all good.

Scott Nelson, president of the Woodwork Career Alliance, rolled up his sleeves to field questions about the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the non-profit organization and its core members. He also offered a glimpse of WCA programs and activities moving forward.

I would say that the best thing that came out of this challenging year is that we created a totally online training platform for our accredited skill evaluators. — Scott Nelson

Rich Christianson: How has the WCA managed to keep things together in the face of the unprecedented challenges posed by the pandemic?

Scott Nelson: It’s been an interesting year, to say the least. There was a lot of uncertainty because we didn’t know how severe Covid would get and how long the pandemic would last. I was concerned about what was going to happen for the 2020-21 school year and how many of our EDUcation members might not renew. Fortunately, our renewals were very strong. We even added some new schools giving us a slight net gain for the year.

To get a better handle on how our EDUcation members’ woodworking programs were doing, we conducted a pair of surveys. The first one was done in Spring 2020 right after the pandemic began. Then, we conducted a follow-up survey in the Fall. That second survey was especially revealing. We learned that nearly one-fifth of our member schools were closed, meaning students were being taught woodworking solely online. About 30 percent of the schools were in a hybrid model in which students alternated on different days between taking classes in-person and remote. Even schools that were fully open still had to limit how many students could be in the woodshop.

In preparation for the 2020-21 school year, we beefed up our online resource library exclusively available to our EDUcation and MANufacturing members. I particularly want to thank Patrick Molzahn of Madison College for creating dozens of new machinery videos and also added related lesson plans and instructor notes to the library. Based on the log-in activity, we know that a lot more teachers took advantage of these materials than in past years.

Right now, I’m extremely busy processing and sending out Sawblade Certificates for qualifying students. I was pleasantly surprised by how many of our programs were able to certify students for their Sawblade Certificates especially considering that many of them had limited opportunities to be in the shop. I applaud the teachers and students for rising to the challenge.

Christianson: Have there been any silver linings in this era of Covid?

Nelson: I would say that the best thing that came out of this challenging year is that we created a totally online training platform for our accredited skill evaluators. That has turned out to be very successful. The training can be done at the teachers’ leisure and it has a much more in-depth training component to it with one-on-one sessions between the lead instructor and the teacher.

So far, we’ve certified about 10 of more than instructors enrolled from 13 states for online ASE training. These teachers will be able to evaluate and test their students for their Sawblade Certificates. So, that has great potential to grow that program. All in all, I really feel good about it. I think that those who are getting their certification through the online program are excellent. I feel confident that they will be able to evaluate and register students correctly.

Christianson: That’s great news, but I imagine there’s been some downside. In what area has the WCA most struggled?

Nelson: We had some really good momentum heading into the pandemic. If I had to point to one thing, I’d say Covid slowed us down in the visibility department. Not having a live IWF last summer hurt. We always get a lot of traffic and the industry’s awareness of who we are and what we do always perks up because of the shows. We did do the virtual IWF Connect and AWI convention, but people don’t come looking for what they don’t know about so consequently our traffic was a fraction of what we are used to. Plus, I missed face-to-face conversations. It really hurt not being able to get our message out at shows, especially to our outreach efforts to wood product manufacturers.

Christianson: Sounds like your ready to get back at it in Las Vegas for the AWFS Fair.

Nelson: Absolutely. I’m looking forward to the AWFS Fair. I think everybody is, both on the supply and machine side and the wood manufacturing side. With the vaccine getting widespread usage, I feel it will be a good show. I think everyone who attends will do so with a purpose and I’m sure there will be a lot of new products to see since the 2019 AWFS Fair.

I’m excited about talking to people about what’s new with the WCA, including the online ASE training. Bruce Spitz (a WCA board member) and I will conduct a workforce development workshop. The program is geared toward helping companies pull together some of the essentials for starting or improving their own training program. Our goal is to help attendees develop a training template unique to their business to take back to their shops to flush out and implement.

We’re also partnering with Mimbus again. They’re bringing the SimSpray virtual reality device for training spray finishing. It’s a great magnet for drawing people into our booth.

Christianson: Now that we appear to be coming out of the pandemic are you seeing a surge of activity?

Nelson: I would say so. I’m definitely seeing a surge of teachers certifying students for their Sawblade Certificates who were unable to do so last year. Because their students were not in class, they couldn’t do the machinery evaluations.

We are also seeing some schools signing up in April, which is not totally unusual but is still a good sign that they are getting back in business and plan to be even more operational in the fall. I think we’re signing on new schools not only to utilize the WCA’s resources but also because the pendulum is swinging back toward the trades. More people are finding out that there are good career opportunities that you can get without going tremendously in debt at a four-year college. Consequently, more high school and postsecondary schools with woodworking programs are seeing the need to offer national certification based on the industry’s best practices and needs.

Richard Memory, left, and Chuck Buck pose with Memory’s Gold credential project.

Christianson: You’ve made several references to growth in school woodworking program membership, what about industry participation?

Nelson: Thanks in large part to financial support from our Gold and Silver sponsors, I think we’ve made good progress in making more wood product manufacturers aware of us through our press releases, plus participation at industry events and word of mouth. We’re adding new manufacturing members, but we have a long way to go. The reality is that we’re a small, non-profit organization with limited funds and really count on the work of dedicated volunteers to make things happen. We have a lot of ideas for new programs but have to stay focused and make priorities. The new online ASE training is a perfect example of that.

I’d love to see more companies step up to the plate like Jefferson Millwork has. They recently helped Richard Memory, one of their employees, be awarded the industry’s first WCA Gold credential. Jefferson has taken the initiative and demonstrated how a company can create a career path and opportunities for an employee to move up the ladder by tying training and incentives to motivate that person to learn and grow their skills.

We’re always looking for new ways to become more relevant to wood manufacturers. That’s why I’m excited that we’re partnering with Woodworking Network on a new workforce development survey. We all know that finding and keeping good employees is an immense challenge for the woodworking industry. We’re hoping the survey will help us identify some potential solutions and provide us guidance for developing new programs.

Christianson: Anything you would like to add?

Nelson: I’m just really looking forward to putting Covid in the rearview mirror and getting back to a little more normalcy.


Woodworking Students Persevere

Six high school woodworking instructors discuss how COVID-19 has slowed, but can’t stop students driven to earn their WCA Sawblade Certificate.

During a school year fraught with unexpected stops and starts due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, the Woodwork Career Alliance of North America (WCA) has already issued more than 200 Sawblade Certificates with hundreds more in the works.

High schools across the U.S. were impacted to varying degrees by the insidious disease. Most students had to adapt to splitting time in the classroom by taking classes online. Even schools that were open on a full-time or hybrid basis during the 2020-21 academic year would have to suddenly shut down for a week or two because of an outbreak. In addition, woodworking teachers had to keep their lesson plans flexible in the event individual students had to quarantine.

“This indeed has been a school year like no other and one that we hope we will never repeat,” said Scott Nelson, president of the WCA. “I’ve talked with many instructors who have shared the challenges they have faced. The Sawblade Certificate is an achievement always worth celebrating, but more so now than ever.”

Woodworking Teachers’ Tales
So, what has it been like to teach high school woodworking during a global pandemic? Six woodworking instructors, who have done just that and helped students earn their Sawblade Certificates to boot, share their stories.

Seymour High School woodworking students

Seymour High School students proudly display their WCA Sawblade Certificates.

Staci Sievert, technical education teacher of Seymour High School, Seymour, WI
My schedule this year only had me with Woods 2 and 3 students in the first semester. In this year of Covid, upperclassmen did not have to take what we would normally consider a full load as we were trying to limit the number of students in the building. As a result, I had fewer students in Woods 2 and 3 and we also had limited in-person days. Despite the challenges, all 11 of our Seymour students who attempted WCA certification, earned it.

The students’ biggest challenge was having very limited shop time to complete their projects and make time for certification. At the time I taught the Woods 2 and 3 students who earned the Sawblade certification, students were in-person two days a week. I modified lesson plans to accomplish what we could virtually to allow for as much in-person time as possible to be spent in the shop. It helped that we had 90-minute class periods with just half the students at a time, but students had to be very focused and often had to arrange to come back into the shop outside of regular class times.

I appreciate the WCA Sawblade certification process as it gives the Woods students a benchmark to reach for and achievement to celebrate. When I award the certificates, I also give the students a document that explains exactly what they did to earn certification so that it can be shown to a future employer or used on a resume. Most of my Woods students will go into manufacturing but not necessarily wood manufacturing. Regardless, earning the WCA Sawblade certificate is a valuable accomplishment since it shows that the student can safely operate equipment to precise specifications. This is an important skill regardless of what material is being processed.

Kettle Moraine High School woodworking class

Students at Kettle Moraine High School assemble laptop tables.

Scott Bruening, technology education instructor, Kettle Moraine High School, Wales, WI
It’s been quite a year so far, to say the least. I will say we are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel here, which is fantastic.

We have been fully open since September with a few days of virtual instruction due to spikes in COVID-19 cases. We shut down as a school two times during the 2020-21 school year, once for two weeks in November and once for three days in December. In addition, throughout the year we have had kids who have been in and out to quarantine for 14 days. That put everyone at a different place as far as the progress and work completion goes. It was really hard to keep up with that early in the year but lately, with things normalizing, it’s been much better as far as student attendance goes.  It’s been a real juggling act this year and I know that both the students and myself are ready to put this behind us and have a restful summer break!

We had 13 earn their Sawblade Certificate in the first semester and are anticipating an additional 58 students will earn their certificate by June. We’ve moved the certification into our Woods I class, which accounts for the sharp increase in Sawblade certificates issued to students.

Additionally, it’s allowing us to keep going with additional tool points and hours for some students to earn their Green credentials. We’ll have students working on their Green credentials starting next year. Currently, we are working on curriculum adjustments to make the Green credential requirements work within our current class structure, too. We have basically what equates to three years of woods and are making adjustments to get the WCA certifications to fit in the Woods I class so that students can make that Green credential requirement with the additional required classes.

The students have done a fantastic job rising to the challenges that have impacted us this year. I think their continued flexibility has made it easy to continue to get them certified. For example, when we were occasionally forced to go from an in-person environment to virtual instantly, the students focused on measuring parts, which didn’t require equipment or being in the shop. The students’ ability to bounce back and forth was amazing.

The WCA Sawblade Certificate has been a fantastic program for our district and we are continuing to grow and expand our woodworking offerings along with the certification pieces. We are looking to certify even more students next year as things start to normalize.

The biggest challenge hasn’t been with the students; it’s been the spike in lumber cost and demand. We weren’t really impacted by the lumber costs as of yet. Our supply was not completely consumed from last year due to the closure for the remaining quarter and we were able to purchase wood last fall before it jumped in price. I must say it’s concerning for next year but for most of our local hardwoods, there has not been a massive jump in the price, unlike the construction lumber market. I just checked our suppliers’ prices today and the increase in the species we use was negligible.

Holmes High School students work on their measuring skills.

Mickey Turner, woodworking I, II, and III teacher, John A Holmes High School, Edenton, NC
My school system, Edenton-Chowan Schools, has been in a plan B since August 2020. Our students are in two cohorts. Cohort A meets Mondays and Tuesdays and Cohort B meets Thursdays and Fridays. Some students, including teachers’ children and those who opted-in, are in class four days a week. We also have remote students.

So far this semester, my students have not completed the tool assessments, but I am anticipating 13 completions of the Sawblade certification by the end of the school year. Last semester, I certified 12 students in Woodworking 2. Three of the 12 were remote students who came into the shop on Wednesdays.

We succeeded because we were allowed to come back in person, with COVID 19 safety and masks. Hands-on classes are impossible to teach without hands-on. Hands-on without hands-on is just theory.

Mt. Airy High School student poses with the Permboke table that he fabricated.

Greg Taylor, woodworking instructor, Mt. Airy High School, Mt. Airy, NC
Covid did not at all impact enrollment in my woodworking classes. Students were ready to come back. My numbers were very strong.

I had 24 students attain their certificates this year. We were fortunate enough to be face to face with our students in the fall and spring semesters. So, I did not have to navigate online instruction. I only give my level 2 and 3 students the chance to earn their Sawblade certificates because at that level the familiarity of the tools and concepts is somewhat easier to understand.

I was pleasantly surprised at how well the students wore masks. As far as social distancing, that was a little more difficult but not regarding equipment use. They are students after all. Students do not operate equipment normally in close proximity to one another anyway. I would wipe down desks between classes and students used readily available hand sanitizer.

Students of Burlington High School’s woodworking program made these serving trays. The project required them to exercise dado, rabbet, and drill press skills.

Juliebeth Farvour, TechEd/STEM 101 Teacher, Burlington, High School, Burlington, WI
How many of your students have earned their Sawblade Certificates so far this semester?

My woodworking classes are each one-semester course. During the first semester, 25 students successfully obtained their Sawblade certificates. This semester, I plan on testing an additional 12 students. I hope to have 37 certified students at the end of this school year.

We spent most of the first semester in a hybrid schedule, with the month of November going fully virtual. Students attended in-person 50-minute classes, twice a week and were virtual for two days. Wednesdays were a “make-up” day. This semester, we spent a quarter in a hybrid schedule but have now transitioned into a five-day a week, A/B block schedule. Students attend class in person for 90 minutes, every other day.

Giving students the experience they need, when only seeing them twice a week, was definitely the biggest challenge. Add on those students who had to quarantine and we really felt the time crunch. Under the circumstances, I worked to ensure that virtual days were spent on safety tests, vocabulary, measurement practice, and layout practice. In-person days were devoted to machine familiarity and completing projects. When we were in the hybrid model, we were allowed to have students come in on Wednesdays and that helped immensely. Then again, since I only had half of the students at any given time, there was less of a wait to use the machines and I was more able to give students the one-on-one attention they sometimes needed.

Students in the woods program want to be there and spend time in the shop, and they accepted that there had to change due to the pandemic. When I explained the new protocols — washing hands before and after class, lots of hand sanitizer during class, and masks in addition to their safety glasses — students grumbled but stepped up and were very good about compliance. They also took advantage of the Wednesday open shop hours and made up any time they lost due to quarantine.

An Avery High School student cross-cuts lumber.

Nick Daniels, skilled trades instructor, Avery County High School, Newland, NC
We have been on a somewhat hybrid schedule since the fall. The majority has been four days a week face-to-face and one day virtual. We recently moved to five days a week face to face. The biggest challenge has been keeping students in school and out of quarantine. As a result, there has been a lack of consistency in scheduling.

Last fall, I had three students qualify for their Sawblade Certificate. I anticipate that seven more will qualify before the school year ends.

I have about a fifty-fifty split of students who are half doing it only because I require the Sawblade test as their final exam and the other half because they are eager to please and have a desire to accomplish as much as they can in the time they have. This fifty-fifty split has been pretty consistent since I began offering the WCA certification regardless of the virus.