Wanted: Volunteers to lead the high-tech revival of American jobs

A visualization and animation professional in Huntsville, Alabama has found a simple remedy for America’s twin crises in employment and the lack of skilled trades workers. All it needs is you.

By Randy Van Nostrand

Randy Van Nostrand

School systems across America are in trouble, and unemployment is high. The jobs available require skills not common in the labor force. The future of this country depends on an educated populace. Removing the possibility of a proper education from the vast majority of our citizens is like eating the seed corn instead of planting it.

The time has come for citizens to take an active role toward change. Our people have always stepped up when faced with a crisis. Our economic system is at peril and we must get up, stand together and fight for positive change with fresh ideas.

Continuing Education is a fundamental way to give oneself an edge in the job market. As the CEO of Dynetics, Dr. Marcus J. Bendickson, said recently at a new employee orientation, “It is vital in today’s changing world, to continue to educate oneself, in order to stay relevant and employed.” We can be prepared for opportunities as they present themselves through re-education.

Polishing one’s skills or acquiring new skills can be a daunting task both from the standpoint of the cost of training and locating a proper venue. I have an idea that could help both the underemployed and unemployed as well as our educational system.

Making a Difference in Huntsville

For over a year now I have been trying to build area interest programs that provides practical technical training to adults at the Huntsville City Schools Center for Technology. Evening classes offered there this semester include Small Engine and Auto Body Repair, Basic Woodworking and Cabinet Making, and Welding. I became a zealous advocate for that school when agreeing to co-teach an AutoCAD class in the fall of 2009.

As I became aware of the great things that school is doing to prepare young people for technical occupations, and saw the serious commitment of the evening students, a simple idea developed.

Rather than raise taxes for education (or at least not raising them as much as would otherwise be necessary) increase support for a modest fee-based education for adults, like the evening program at the HCT. The cost of hosting those classes could be kept low by using public school facilities in the evening. Upgrading skills and re-education of adults, if enough students are enrolled, would then be able to supplement the daytime program’s education budget.

Americans have a proud history of innovation, public service, and charity that is grounded in our practical, self-sufficient beginnings. Our forebears built this country through hard work and cooperation. For them the best part of being an American was an opportunity to further themselves and build community.

Today we have lost many of our manufacturing jobs to China, India, and Mexico. Their low-wage labor gives them an unfair advantage. Families who proudly worked in the auto, textile, or electronics industries and other manufacturing jobs find themselves unemployed. College bound youth go there with no real plan for life after graduation. Some find that their education led to a career they did not enjoy. Exposure to a technical specialty with a practical, fun, and in-demand job future seems to be in order before they embark on a college course of study.

Cliff makes a difference

Actor John Ratzenberger, best known as Cliff Clavin the mail carrier in TV’s Cheers, has become an enthusiastic champion of re-education for today’s new manufacturing jobs. In a recent article in Reader’s Digest by Natalie Van Der Meer, Ratzenberger says, “We need to reinstate vocational training in skilled manual crafts. A lot of people think that manual labor is demeaning, that if you don’t have a college degree you are a lesser human being. You are not. High school guidance counselors should be telling students that factories today are immaculate and that some people in manufacturing make good money.”

Ratzenberger is alarmed that the average age of today’s industrial worker is 55 and the younger generation is not being equipped to take their place. He says that “within two years there will be a need for 500,000 welders in the United States.” He continues, “Look around at all of the things that need welding—bridges, water systems, sewer systems, ships, and railroads.” He goes on to warn that one of the reasons the Roman Empire collapsed is that roads fell into disrepair and there weren’t enough stonemasons to repair them. He said “the same thing could happen here.”

Welding is a popular class at the Huntsville City Schools Center for Technology. Eddie Turner, past principal of the HCT has said, “Huntsville will absorb all certified welders that can be produced, and at a high wage.” Auto body and small engine repair are jobs that are immune to economic fluctuations. Computer upgrade and repair is an essential skill and one that will be in demand for the foreseeable future. Woodworking and Cabinet Making have fallen out of favor in this country. Look at the point of origin of the furniture we can purchase, and the source of the wood that is used in manufacture. How can we feel good about ourselves when we leave endangered species rain forest wood antiques to our children?

My personal specialty is CAD. My daytime job title is Visualization and Animation Specialist. I’ve been employed locally for almost 30 years and have taught drafting part-time from the days that it was on the drafting board, to the present day. Computer Aided Design is a dynamically changing field, crowded with very capable software packages. I have used most of them and have found that all basically do the same thing.

Autodesk Grant

Because my students asked me to teach them to do 3D Modeling, and because AutoCAD has limited 3D modeling capabilities, I solicited and received from Autodesk a grant of 125 seats of the Autodesk Design Academy Suite. These products are widely used in the industry, and understanding how they work can give you another card to play when competing for a job. This semester I loaded 17 seats with latest releases of AutoCAD Mechanical, Autodesk Inventor Pro and 3DS Max, and I have arranged for two of my coworkers to help me teach them.

Getting up and standing together

Bobby Milk, an All Things Considered host here at WLRH (http://www.wlrh.org/) in Huntsville graciously agreed to record a segment on January 4th, that brought together three ideas that are working separately here to further education. You’ve read about mine above, here are two other ones:

Many successful Huntsville citizens are graduates of the HCT. One of those in the news recently is Tim Pickens, becoming well known for unusual accomplishments. He is an innovator in the field of propulsion. He has made national news for building a rocket-powered bicycle and for being the lead propulsion engineer who helped Burt Rutan win the SpaceX competition for the first commercially produced space vehicle. Pickens is leading Huntsville’s Rocket City Space Pioneers in their attempt to win the Google Lunar xPrize. The winning team will be the first to build a lunar rover, deliver it successfully to the moon, get it to travel 500 yards and transmit images back to earth. Daytime students at the Huntsville Center for Technology will be team members of the Rocket City Space Pioneers and will help build essential components of the Lunar Vehicle. Go to http://rocketcityspacepioneers.com/ for more information.

Another volunteer making a difference at the HCT is Jerry Cobbs, he works with the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative at UAH, http://www.amsti.org/usa/, and with a computer donation group called Project TREE, details of it can be found at http://aetossystems.com/ProjectTREE.html. They set up farms of hard drive-less computers slaved to one that acts as a server. It uses a Linux operating system and hosts 80 different public domain learning software programs. These are provided at no cost to the school system. Aetos facilitated donations of those computers from local businesses, NASA, and the Army. They found that once the organizations were informed of a need for outmoded computers that were being replaced, they were glad to make them available for the schools. Excess inventory became real jewels for the schools.

Let us hear your fresh ideas for positive change

I know there are many other like-minded individuals with great ideas for modernizing education and re-educating workers. What is being done in Huntsville can be emulated and improved upon all over our country. All that will take is people with a bit of vision and a willingness to participate, to turn our country’s fortunes around.

Randy Van Nostrand is Visualization and Animation Specialist for Dynetics, Inc., in Huntsville, Alabama and a part-time instructor at Huntsville City Schools Center for Technology. For more information visit http://www.wix.com/cadteach/evening-classes

The Huntsville City Schools Center for Technology provides low-cost skills training for adults seeking new career opportunities.