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East's Manufacturing Pathway is "Building" the Next Generation of Skilled Workers

The manufacturing sector has long been viewed as the backbone of economic development. 

And if that development is to continue, it’s essential that the next generation of manufacturing and fabrication professionals be up for the task.

It’s with that mindset that Darren Grine assumed the manufacturing program mantle at East High School five years ago. East's manufacturing teacher talks with D60 about the program he leads at the school

As a Career and Technical Education pathway, East’s burgeoning manufacturing program is prepping students to become valued and viable employees soon after leaving high school.

Mr. Grine brings to East more than 25 years of industry experience, including stints at EVRAZ, ABC Rail, and CURT Manufacturing. In those years, he came to realize that without the proper training, a trades employee will not stand the test of time.

“You have to have the skills. So hopefully, what the kids here will take away is a hands-on experience in how to use hand and power tools and operate welding and sheet metal equipment,” Mr. Grine said. “It’s very important that they get that experience.

“And as I worked many years in that industry, I try to give them the benefit of that experience.”

Five years ago, Mr. Grine was looking to retreat from the trades and saw education as a fine landing spot.

“I was getting tired of that kind of work,” he said. “And I wanted to teach.”

In Mr. Grine’s inaugural year at East, the manufacturing program was sorely lacking in the equipment needed to forge a workforce.

“When I came in this room, there was exactly one welder, one brake press and a brake shearer: that’s it,” he explained. “But now, if you look across the room, you’ll see that I’m pretty well established.

“And we’re still building.”

Eagles who choose the manufacturing pathway are now trained on a litany of equipment, including a programmable milling unit, virtual welder, cutting saw, metal brake machine, sheet metal press and drill: most of it new.

Hand tools also play a vital role in the curriculum.

It’s a far cry from the days when Mr. Grine learned his trade skills at Corwin and Central.

“Metals and woods: I had all those programs when I was a kid,” he explained. “Back in that day, handling tools was easy, because we were used to it. So it’s important to teach these kids the motor skills in using the hand tools, because oftentimes, they have difficulty holding them. 

“But it’s not their fault, because most of the time, they don’t have anyone to show them. And that’s what this program is all about: hands-on, and learning how to drill, grind, weld, and so on.”

Mr. Grine points to a pair of recent East graduates who are excelling within the welding program at Pueblo Community College. Sensing the skill the Eagles display, a number of PCC students, especially those of a non-traditional nature, are often quick with a question.

“Where did you learn to weld like that?”

“And the fact that they learned from me makes me feel good,” Mr. Grine said. “And a lot of those PCC students are shocked, because they don’t know there are programs like this in the district.”

Eagles also have gone onto the Lincoln College of Technology in Denver, one of the most prestigious trade schools in the country.

“Whenever a senior comes into the class, I ask them why they decided to take the class,” Mr. Grine said. “One senior, Anna Decker, a standout athlete, told me, ‘I’m a senior and I need an elective.’ I found out she was planning to attend college in Arizona.”

As Ms. Decker progressed through the manufacturing course, she began to view it as more than a mere elective. Along the way, a recruiter from the Lincoln College of Technology paid a visit to East.

“And now Anna is attending Lincoln Tech,” Mr. Grine said. 

East alumni Alan Romero, also attending Lincoln College of Technology, was offered a welding position in Nevada that pays $30 an hour.

“And he’s only 18,” Mr. Grine said. “As a certified welder, he will be set for life. That’s unheard of.”

Trade jobs, he added, will always be in demand.

“Last year, we took a tour of Vestas, pewag and other businesses,” Mr. Grine. “And afterwards, we had a meeting with all the human resource people. And they told us, ‘We need people with hands-on skills, who know how to work with their hands.’

“And you have to realize that a lot of places like Trane use hand tools. So that’s why it’s important for the students to have those motor skills, because that’s what employers are looking for.”

As the current manufacturing workforce approaches retirement, there is a critical gap that must be filled.

“And there’s no one to fill those positions, due to the skills not being taught at many middle and high schools,” Mr. Grine said. “And that’s one of the things that drove me to become a teacher.

“Hopefully, I can pass those skills on to someone else.”