A Student's Plea

BY HELEN KUHL

For the past couple of years, CWB has included several commentaries, news items and letters from readers regarding the skilled labor shortage being faced by the woodworking industry.

Besides identifying the industry's concerns about this problem, a lot of our coverage has been about efforts underway to combat it, such as the Architectural Woodwork Institute's development of a "Partners in Progress" recruitment program and the Woodworking Machinery Industry Assn.'s work with WoodLINKS to distribute its recruitment kit. Even in this issue, there is an article about woodworking skill standards being developed in Washington state that could have implications nationwide.

While these positive steps are being taken to address the issue, I still felt myself somewhat at a loss when I recently received an e-mail from Judy Brunson, a woodworking technology student, who was asking for help in preventing the discontinuation of the woodworking program at her community college, Olney Central College in southeastern Illinois.

Brunson said that OCC, which is located about 240 miles south of Chicago and 150 miles east of St. Louis, MO, is the only institution of higher education in Illinois with a woodworking program that offers a post-secondary degree.

The program was going to be discontinued because of reduced enrollment and the associated lack of funds, Brunson said. A decision was to be made in mid-February, shortly after she contacted me. Brunson said that students currently in the program were trying to rally support, raise funds and recruit students.

I called the head of the school's Woodworking Technology Department, Rick Hartom, a week after the decision deadline to see what had happened. I got a "bad news, good news" answer.

The bad news was that his position had been eliminated and, since he is the only full-time woodworking faculty member, this virtually eliminates the department. He said that the program was only graduating three students this year, down from a normal six to eight (the ideal is 12 to 15). He added that administrative support for the program has fluctuated during the past eight years because of discontinuity in the positions of president and dean of students -- the different individuals involved have had varying degrees of interest in woodworking.

The good news was that the Board of Trustees, faced with an actual shutdown of the program, indicated unofficially that if Hartom can recruit enough students for the coming year, it will reinstate his position. And it is helping him by providing materials and other support for his recruitment and program development efforts. With these efforts, he is optimistic about the program being saved.

What struck me most upon being contacted for my input was the realization that with all the industry-wide attention and projects underway to address this problem, the solution ultimately depends upon grass roots efforts at local community and school levels to keep formal woodworking training alive. While the schools themselves presumably have a vested interest in attracting and keeping students in their programs, they also need help from the local or regional industry they are feeding.

For a custom shop, this help can be something as simple as making a phone call to the instructors of woodworking programs or classes which exist in a shop's area to offer feedback about curriculum, support for recruitment or input about employment opportunities. Or it can be writing a letter, as a community member, to the local school board to emphasize the need for woodworking education

Also, we have featured shops in past issues of CWB which have "gone the extra mile" and hosted open houses for students and educators, visited schools, participated in career nights and provided internships to enhance school programs, attract students and inform the community about the industry. In every case I have encountered, the educators involved welcomed help and feedback from local industry members.

Groups like AWI and WMIA are working to provide tools to make recruitment efforts easier and more effective. But these tools won't work by themselves. The best way to find people interested in becoming trained woodworkers and have schools to train them is for woodworkers to share their enthusiasm for their field and have woodworking companies spread the word about their career opportunities.

I could only reply to the Olney Community College situation by reiterating the industry's shared concern and need for woodworking training and make them aware of the programs in development. For OCC to solve its dilemma, it have to garner help from its local community and industry and get them involved.

My question to readers becomes, "What's the situation in your individual area, and what can you do to help?" While time is very precious and workdays are already long in most custom woodworking shops, everyone should take an interest to ensure the availability of a skilled work force for the long-term.

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