By George Hohmann
For the W.Va. Press Association
RED JACKET, W.Va. — West Virginia businesses needing to hire an experienced employee who can pass a drug test and is willing to do a fair day’s work for a day’s pay should visit one of the simulated workplaces in the state’s school system.
Students in Mingo Central High School’s career and technical education programs gain on-the-job experience every time they go to class. Their classrooms resemble workplaces and their assignments are for “companies” they’ve named.
For example, “smARTdesign” is the graphics art company. You can tell it’s “employees” by the uniforms they wear: fluorescent green shirts, black bowties, black pants and black suspenders. They’re known for their projects, which always feature eye-popping graphics.
Students must apply for a job, go through an interview, be subject to a random drug testing, and develop a portfolio of work projects and certifications. The interview questions are broad: How would you describe your teamwork ability? Where do you see yourself in five years?” And a drug test? School officials point out the program is trying to simulate the real work world.
The simulated workplace program is the brainchild of Kathy D’Antoni, assistant state superintendent of schools for the Division of Technical, Adult and Institutional Education.
“Business people are highly frustrated,” she said. “They have a hard time finding candidates who can pass a drug test. They hire people who don’t show up and do a fair day’s work for a day’s pay. I thought, ‘These are smart kids. What are we missing? Kids don’t do well sitting all day absorbing lectures — they learn by doing. Let’s try putting these kids in a work environment.’
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has made workforce readiness a top priority in his administration. He supports making career and technical education more business-like and entrepreneurial and has encouraged representatives of businesses to get involved in their local schools.
Representatives of real companies inspect the “workplace,” checking on safety procedures, the status of equipment and attitudes. They ask questions that matter to employers: Where required, are emergency shutoff switches visible, accessible, properly labeled and unobstructed? Is equipment properly maintained and clean? Do the students and instructor appear to have positive attitudes and good working relationships?
Inspectors also conduct interviews of students and staff: Can students discuss how acquired program skills will assist in furthering their education and career? Can the instructor discuss how he or she is keeping abreast of current occupational standards?”
One of the key and final questions on the report is for the inspector: “Would you hire graduates or completers of this program?”
When you meet 17-year-old graphic arts senior Jessica Sturgell of Varney — officially co-creative director for first shift at smARTdesign — she presents you with a business card that features the company logo, an exaggerated version of the school’s miner mascot, and the school’s address and phone number — right down to the correct extension for their class, er, workshop.
Sturgell said, “The simulated workplace is worthwhile because it taught me a lot of graphic design skills. We’ve already worked with industry standard (software) products like Photoshop and Illustrator and 3-D printing software and an industrial-grade printer.
“We’ve actually made mock-ups of different products — board games and cereal boxes and card games and signage. So it’s not like a typical learning environment where you have a lot of lectures and quizzes. You actually create and produce work.”
Sturgell’s favorite project was the creation of a trading card game. “It had a super hero theme so we had to create a hero, a villain and an alien. It worked kind of in the way rock-paper-scissors did. We collaborated with other schools to create the project. It was a team-building exercise and also showed how you interact with other companies that aren’t in the same area as you.”
She delights in showcasing class projects like cereal box mock-ups made by the class. “Most boxes of cereal don’t have toys inside anymore,” she said. “We thought, ‘Why not make the box the toy?”
Results include a box with an elephant’s image on the front, it’s trunk leading to an actual spout where the cereal comes out.
“Our cereal box designs are patent pending, which is pretty cool,” she said.
Sturgell’s goal is to study advertising design at Carnegie Mellon University.
Dustyn Chambers, 17, of Delbarton, is smARTdesign’s first shift designer and co-safety director. His design work features “Goat Boy,” a character he created. He enjoys showing off the “Goat Boy” card game he developed and the skate board deck which has a different graffiti-style “Goat Boy” design on each side.
Chambers is pondering whether to become a designer or go into the information technology field. “I have a big interest in computers but I also have a huge interest in design,” he said.
Haley Mounts, 17, of Matewan, works for Appalachian Engineering, which offers two intermediate classes, Introduction to Engineering and Design and Principles of Engineering, plus classes that focus on engineering fields like aerospace, civil and mechanical engineering.
This year Mounts is taking both of the intermediate classes. Next year she’ll take three or four classes and work on a big project that will result in a prototype product.
Last year, as a sophomore year, Mounts said, “I didn’t know what I wanted to do.” Her experiences have helped her set goals.“I want to be an aerospace and mechanical engineer and possibly work for NASA and become an astronaut,” she said.
Harley Pauley, 18, of Varney, is a senior who works for Mountain Top Metal, a welding “company.”
“We have all of the state-of-the-art equipment — a CNC plasma cutter and all of the plasma cutter setups,” he said as he showed a visitor around Mountain Top Metal’s immaculate, equipment-filled shop. “We have top-of-the-line welders from Lincoln Electric and Miller Electric.”
In addition to producing its own products, “We’re also working in collaboration with Appalachian Engineering and smARTdesign,” Pauley said.
His favorite project is a sculpture Mountain Top Metal presented to Sen. Joe Manchin during the senator’s recent visit to the school.
“We took our CNC plasma cutter and cut an outline of West Virginia. We mounted the outline on top of the American flag, all cut out of metal. We figured out where he went to college and put WVU on the side of it and tidied it up real nice.”
On the same day of his visit Manchin posted pictures from his tour — including a photo of the sculpture — on Facebook.
Pauley hopes after he graduates to be an apprentice pipeline welder, which would lead to becoming a pipeline welder’s helper. “A pipeline welder’s helper makes $26 an hour starting off,” he said.
“The simulated workplace program is going into its fifth year,” D’Antoni said. “It has been successful because the teachers and students embrace it.”
Marcella Charles, assistant principal and career technology education administrator at Mingo Central High, said she appreciates the state’s support for the program. She said that although it’s a competitive process, the school generally gets the equipment it needs if it meets certain requirements.
For example, she said Project Lead the Way — a nonprofit that develops science, technology, engineering and mathematics curricula — asked for a laser glass engraver for the school. “They sent Dr. D’Antoni a letter requesting that equipment. She replied that she would send it but we would have to uphold our end of the bargain, which was to improve attendance. Also, she required that a certain percentage of students had to complete their portfolios within a set time period.”
D’Antoni said, “What we’re trying to teach the students is if you go to the bank to borrow money for a company, there’s accountability. Since the students can’t pay us back, we say their ‘company’ has to do certain things” like improve attendance, complete portfolios and score better on tests.
D’Antoni said dollars needed for simulated workplace are minimal — about $300,000 a year — because the program is a change of environment and culture, not a change in curriculum. The money comes from state and federal appropriations.
D’Antoni’s office provides grants to counties based on their enrollment and pays for expenses like uniforms and random drug tests.
Doug Martin, a graphic design teacher at Mingo Central, said the simulated workplace has been in his classroom for three years. “It was challenging at first but every year we seem to get a little better,” he said. “I think with every program you have to go through a trial-and-error period to see what works for you. What works for graphic design may not work for building construction and what works for building construction may not work for welding.
“For instance, my graphic design students don’t have to wear steel-toed boots.”
An early focus was on getting the atmosphere right. That ranged from having the students select the names of the “companies” to creating a work environment and decorating the halls with appropriate signs and themes.
Martin said he’s been most heartened by seeing his students work together as a team. “That’s an essential skill they’ll use in the real world,” he said.
Although D’Antoni could retire she won’t because she loves seeing students blossom and she’s consumed with a desire to see the simulated workplace program expand.
Many schools currently offer it. There are six model schools: Mingo Central, the Ralph R. Willis Career and Technical Center in Logan, the James Rumsey Technical Institute in Martinsburg, the Nicholas County Career Center in Craigsville, the John D. Rockefeller IV Career and Technical Center in New Cumberland and the Putnam County Career Center in Eleanor.
“Next year every high school student in West Virginia will have access to at least one simulated workplace,” she said.
Some of the businesses and organizations that are participating as simulated workplace inspectors are Charleston Area Medical Center, the West Virginia Health Care Association, Rock Branch Mechanical, Toyota, Mason & Berry, Dow Chemical, the West Virginia Hygienist Association, Absten Electric, the Charleston Building and Trades Association, Midway Ford, Marshall/Cabell Huntington Hospital, Harry Mills LLC, Union Local 625, Hybridge Communications, WVNG, RTI, Gould Electric, Lowe’s, Gestamp, NGK, Rock Solid Masonry, the West Virginia Manufacturers Association and the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce.
Additional information about the program is posted online at www.simulatedworkplace.com