Debra Matthews was a mother of one on welfare until she decided to change careers. As the first woman to complete the electrical engineering program at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, she landed a job with Chevron making $25 an hour. But it was no surprise to those who knew her when she opted for a lower paying job as a teacher so she could spend more time with her child.
“I knew I could never earn a good living unless I made a change,” said Matthews, an electrical engineering instructor at MGCCC who formerly worked as a grocery store clerk. “It was tough. I could barely make ends meet, I was on food stamps, but I went through the program with a 4.0 grade point average. I was that determined to make a difference in our lives.”
Matthews was selected as the 2000 winner of the Mississippi Manufacturers Association Award for Excellence in Vocational Education, one that will be awarded to her at MMA’s 49th annual convention this fall.
“Debra is a bootstrap example,” said Jerry McBride, MMA president. “She started out with nothing and now she is training people in what she learned just a few years ago. Debra’s experience shows what can happen if someone has the motivation and takes advantage of the training available. As an instructor, she has the hands-on experience which is certainly valuable to employers and to the students she is teaching.”
Every year, the MMA recognizes vocational educators that have made a difference in workforce training at the grassroots level.
“In 1994, the MMA established the award program to encourage, recognize and reward individuals who are active in advancing the vocational education process in Mississippi,” said McBride.
Carol Ann Drane, last year’s award recipient, coordinator of student services at Canton Career Center and teacher of academic subjects related to vocational trade areas, not only takes students on field trips to give them first-hand exposure to the work environment, she gives up summers to work in the trenches. She has completed business and industry internships with Parker Skinner Valve in Madison and KLLM Transport in Richland.
“Giving up summer vacations is a sacrifice, but it’s important to get into the workplace where you’ll be sending students because companies want trained employees,” Drane said. “Technology is changing so fast. What’s here today is soon out of date. Companies don’t have time to, nor should they have to, retrain workers. I want to make sure I’m doing my part so my students are prepared to be a part of the economic success of the future.”
Michael Ray, director of Greenville Technical Center, a vocational educator 2000 finalist, surveyed business leaders last fall to confirm what he had already guessed: Industry representatives should participate in the curriculum frameworks of academic education.
“That’s an absolute must,” he said. “What we’re doing in secondary schools in the state does not match industry needs.”
Last fall, GTC surveyed 44 industries in Washington County — most were national companies with local offices — to see if workforce training requirements were being met.
“We found out we weren’t even close in meeting their needs,” Ray said. “We’re starting a new six-year cycle, and within the next few years, we must convince state superintendents to open their doors and allow us to put industry members, instead of just educators, on state framework committees. If we want to change Mississippi, concerning industrial needs, that’s where we do it. Not at the community college level, not at the university level. Only 20% of today’s tenth graders will enter college, and about 70% will be married in five years or have children. Yet all of them are going to be looking for jobs — and all will have bills.
“How many companies do you think needed workers who could decipher ‘Romeo & Juliet’ or other literature or poetry? None. We teach pre-algebra in the seventh grade, yet only 3% of our workforce needs algebra skills. Industries need people who know fractions and decimals, and can convert back and forth. They need simple business communication skills.”
Even though students complete the curriculum, it’s not what industry needs — and it’s embarrassing, Ray said.
“If educators would take the lead in changing this, Mississippi education would come off the bottom of the list and industry would flow into the state,” he said.
Cheryl Carr, business technology instructor at Hinds Community College in Jackson since 1985, a vocational educator 2000 finalist, takes students out of the classroom for “reality checks” before they enter the job market. She works up resumes, shows students what to wear to job interviews and even takes them to fitness classes to stress the importance of good health in the workplace.
“I want my students to be successful in not only getting a job, but also in keeping a job,” said Carr, who teaches inner-city kid, mostly single moms on welfare. “I’ve seen so many instances where students have computer- and office-related skills, but they haven’t been exposed to life skills.”
Because workers’ good health is important to companies, Carr stresses the importance of health and fitness to her students, often taking them to a fitness club for a work-out, or a restaurant, where they count calories and fat grams while they dine, and bringing in nutritionists and aerobics instructors into the classroom.
“From nutrition to exercise, I preach good health,” she said. “If they aren’t in good health, companies will be reluctant to hire them. Plus, if they’re healthy, they’ll lead longer, more productive lives.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at email@example.com or (601) 853-3967.