Congratulations to Byron Williams, his classes, and the entire Industrial Systems and Maintenance program in the city of Auburn, Alabama for winning the $500 Allen Booth Education Award. Their program embodies the coordination, goals, and spirit that AllenBooth.com aims to highlight. Their teacher is not paid by the school district, though he teaches full time. The classroom is not owned by the school, though students arrive on busses every day. The program is a model of what can be achieved when industry, city, and education work together, and a skilled craftsman devotes his time to sharing his knowledge - a solution that benefits society as a whole, most specifically the youth that will soon become part of America's workforce.
A bit about the craftsman
"The first car I restored was my grandfather's. That's where I started turning a wrench." After high school Mr. Williams joined the army, becoming a marine technician, "which means boat mechanic", he says. "After the Army I got a job as auto mechanic, then after a while I went to Briggs and Stratton and became a dynamometer technician for 8 years." Ready for a change, Mr. Williams earned a degree. Briefly performing IT work, the opportunity arose for an instructor in the newly-developed Industrial Systems and Maintenance program. He has been teaching students vocational skills for the last 8 years.
City, Industry, Schools partner for success
In the early 2000s, employers in local industry noticed the downward trend of skilled labor being available locally. They expressed this concern to city government, who brought in representatives from the local school system. A ongoing dialogue led to the launch of a pilot program - the Director of Workforce Development led a class offered to high school students. The Industrial Development Board offered available shop space - buildings originally meant to be for business incubation, but going unused. The response made it clear this had to become a full-time program. In 2005 Mr. Williams was hired, and though he is paid by the city, he is permanently teaching trade skills to high school students. He added classes, developing an all-day program for a wider range of students. There's a milling class, a lathe class, machining program, and industrial systems program.
Mr. Williams listed two successes that represent the goals of the program. The first was a female student who had been part of the team of 16-students who built a hovercraft in 18 weeks. On the day of the reveal, with her father in attendance, and when the craft started moving, she began pounding on her father's chest, shouting "I did that, I did that!". Mr. Williams says, "that's exactly what I'm looking for". Whether or not she pursues a career building things, the experience has established the belief that she can accomplish something great, making it more likely she will accomplish something great. A second example involves a male student who failed his senior year. Rather than drop out, he was convinced to come back for a second senior year, this time enrolling in the Industrial Systems program. Suddenly he found an environment in which he thrived, gaining knowledge in machining. One year later, he was working for a local manufacturer for $17.50 an hour. From the prospect of going without a high school diploma to a secure job at $35,000 per year, he represents the successes that occur when a way is found to offer practical vocational education.
Difference between a craftsman and a hack
"A machinist is a craftsman. There's a difference between a craftsman and a hack," Mr. Williams tells us. "Somewhere there is an inherent desire and mechanical ability to work with one's hands and do a good job. One person may make a cup, and a craftsman can say 'Ok, that's a cup, but let me show you a cup'. They take it to the next level. They care. What they make isn't just screwed together, but the screws are straight. It applies to every step of craftsmanship."
We asked Mr. Williams about the Employability grade, a unique concept or at least an appropriate term. "Participation grades are looked down on, but I needed a way of communicating how an employer would view their employment. At a job, if you can't work with your group, you'd get fired. If you aren't paying attention at work, you'd get fired." The Employability grade, then, involves less pressure than the dreadful experience of getting fired, but conveys to students the activities which will make them thrive within a company versus struggle in it.
From launching for vocational skill training when the official curriculum did not have a place for it, to the daily sharing of knowledge the machinist Byron Williams gives to his students, the Auburn Industrial Systems and Maintenance program is a worthy winner of this Allen Booth Award. Thanks to them and to all craftsmen keeping specialized skills alive and well within our culture.
The Allen Booth Education Award was given as part our commitment to raise awareness about the importance of vocational training in the USA. Thank you to the craftsmen and craftswomen training apprentices and students beneath them to ensure the next generation builds as many great things as the current one.