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A teaching moment

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Wes McKnight believes apprentices are the future. Teach them well and let them lead the way.

For all my sins, every year I help with judging the Electrical Trades Teacher of the Year Award for the National Electrical and Communications Association (NECA). And each year my associate judge and I reflect on the same things after the winner is determined. We are continually impressed by the finalists’ passion for teaching and assisting with the development of their students. Not just in their chosen trade, but as people.

In 2016, the quality of the finalists reached a new level. These teachers spend a vast number of hours outside the classroom in their own time developing teaching aides, new testing facilities, and even arranging overseas aid programs where the students (who fund their own travel costs) travel to third world countries to work as electricians (supervised) on aid projects.

Typically teachers in our industry are not thought about much. We as an industry talk about apprenticeship numbers, completion rates, TAFE facilities, private RTO funding, pre-apprenticeship placement outcomes, relevance of modules, training packages, etc.

We don’t spend anywhere near as much time on the people who have as much to do with the quality of the people coming into our industry as managers/supervisors of the apprentices in the work place. NECA’s decision to continue to provide the awards and elevate the status of teachers in our industry needs to be applauded.

For those of us who have come through the apprenticeship system, we will all have memories of good and bad experiences with different teachers. I have a theory though that in all our time at school there is one teacher that stands out. One who really connected with us – this is true with primary and secondary schooling as well. And then, of course, with trade school. This one teacher is the one who helped and communicated with each of us better than others. This must be a great feeling for a teacher to see and help a student complete a tough task. Each of the finalists mentioned this point and the joy they get from these situations.

Our registered training organisations (RTOs) will tell us that finding people who want to be trade teachers is getting more difficult by the year. Without people with the passion and commitment to teach at the trade level our industry will not survive at the level we are now and can’t hope to develop further. Knowing the curriculum is one thing, having the skill, patience and passion to teach this to people aged 16 through to 45 years of age is another. Teaching is a skill that needs to be taught. We can’t take experienced tradespeople off sites and walk them into a class room, give them the curriculum and let them go.

Developing teachers is an industry issue that needs to be discussed, solutions developed and funded. Talent identification systems implemented so experienced electricians can have a career plan that shows them that they can use their skills and experience for many years. This career path won’t suit everyone but the industry needs to find a way to capture this experience and to transfer it to our next generation. Another source of new teachers would be experienced tradespeople who by way of injury are unable to return to their original full time work. We need people who will assist in delivering the training package backed up with real work experience.

Experienced tradespeople think outside the square when teaching the practical aspects of the curriculum. Some of the systems and teaching methods I have seen in my time are quite brilliant. There is a level of information and system sharing beginning to occur between some RTOs, again a necessary development.

These methods and systems have been created by experienced tradespeople. People who know what real world issues our apprentices are going to face. The more we use their real work experience the better apprentices will be trained.

The identification of suitable candidates that can transition from full time tradesman to a trained teacher is a costly process. Firstly however, we need to communicate that this career course is available. Teaching is not an obvious or traditional career option for experienced tradesmen in our industry. We need to change this. A cultural change like this will take time and money.

We could articulate that it is time to “put back into the industry” however this won’t appeal to everyone. Providing a clear career option broadly across our industry is the first stage. In the past moving from tradesman might mean working for a supplier or wholesaler. We need teaching to be thought of in that way. New teachers might be able to be found during periods of redundancies. Potentially redundancy funds could be used in the teacher identification process.

Once trained; teachers can have a flexible work/life balance. Hours to suit and can be engaged on a casual basis if, for instance the teacher wants to continue a small contracting business at the same time.

Maybe it is the looming ‘milestone’ birthday next year or the recent judging of the teacher’s award or the regular conversations I have with executive directors of TAFEs and RTOs around the country discussing the shortage of teachers has turned my mind to a career option for experienced tradespeople from our industry. When we are able to tap into the decades of real world installation/construction/maintenance/design experience the next generation of tradespeople the apprentice, the training institution (thorough better completion rates) and the employer win.

Retraining injured workers into teachers is a great way to keep our people in our industry. Close to the industry that these people have chosen. Leverage off the experience that they have already gained. This idea will save insurance companies and governments hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. A program will need to be developed to assess their suitability to a career in teaching.

I look forward to this conversation gaining some momentum. Then one day the thought of teaching will be an automatic career option for our industry.

About Wes McKnight

Wes McKnight

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