Op-Ed: Let’s give students a chance to explore what’s next

Note: This op-ed was originally published in The Olympian.

What are you going to do next? That’s the question every high school senior or freshly minted graduate has undoubtedly been hearing for months. I know I asked it of my students more than a few times this past year.

Some have had their paths planned since elementary school. Others are still figuring it out. But our goal, as high school teachers, is to ensure that all our students have an opportunity to build basic skills in their classes and to explore and develop their interests. When students graduate, they should be ready for industry or some kind of a post-secondary program.

I teach manufacturing at Capital High School because when my students receive their diploma, I want them to leave high school secure in the knowledge that many doors will be open to them, whether they want to pursue work, apprenticeships, the military, or college. I take great pride in helping them get where they want to go.

To ensure my students are industry ready and will have multiple options after high school, I teach Core Plus Aerospace, a two-year high school manufacturing curriculum developed and supported by Boeing and its partners. There are nearly 300,000 manufacturing workers in Washington state today, many of whom are ready to retire. Employers need manufacturing talent, and the door is opening to the next generation. In offering this curriculum and partnering with industry, Capital High School provides a direct pathway to these rewarding jobs.

The Core Plus Aerospace curriculum starts with skills common to all manufacturing, such as precision measurement, materials science, and the use of hand and power tools. Students can take those skills into the aerospace, maritime, construction, or other industries. They also have the option of digging deeper into aerospace-specific content and can earn a certificate of competency recognized by industry. That certificate is their ticket to job interviews and potentially a manufacturing career, much like the ones that have supported Washington families and communities for decades.

My students use the same machines they would use on the floor of a manufacturing plant. They learn how to accurately cut parts on lathes and milling machines. They use metalworking machines, including manual and Computer Numerical Control, or CNC, mills. This isn’t abstract or theoretical learning. It is real-world skills honed through hands-on learning, and that’s what employers are looking for.

Twenty-first century education must be about more than seat time and lectures. It should provide opportunity for students – while they are still in high school – to learn and apply skills, to explore areas of interest, and to prepare for the future.

In today’s Career & Technical Education classrooms, and specifically manufacturing classes like those at Capital High School, students have the opportunity to do just that. They learn high-demand skills. They tour growing industries and meet potential employers. They engage in skills-based competitions, like SkillsUSA, and practice mock interviews.

The need for skilled manufacturing talent is growing in our state, and it presents a tremendous opportunity for our young people. It’s an opportunity that should be talked about as students seek to answer the question, “What are you going to do next?”

Students who have a chance to explore career interests and develop “skills that pay the bills” will not only be able to answer the question about what comes next, they will graduate confident that many doors and post-high school pathways are open to them. That is what we want for each of them.

William Murray is a Career and Technical Education teacher at Capital High School in Olympia.