Dr. Christine Johns

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Real skills for real jobs

The skills gap in our workforce is a concern drawing state and national attention. As any employer knows, this gap is the difference between the skills they seek and the skills graduates actually possess when they leave school.

Business leaders in our community are reporting that opportunities are opening up for those with technical knowhow. The overarching question is how to best create a blueprint that links good, high-paying jobs with qualified, home-grown applicants.

The answer in Utica Community Schools lies in a visionary half day program launched five years ago known as Utica Center for Science and Industry. In its short history, UCSI has earned wide recognition for its success in producing high school graduates ready to step directly into technology-based career apprenticeships or college classrooms or – in most cases – both.

Developed with a federal grant, UCSI is a good fit for promising high school students who want to work with their heads as well as their hands. They may gravitate toward the hard skills – computers, math, science – and are intrigued by complex systems and equipment. They’re curious about how things work and finding solutions. Some students may view themselves as not being good in math until applying formulas to do real work. It’s not uncommon for a UCSI junior or senior who enrolled thinking he/she didn’t like algebra to consider becoming an engineer.

UCSI programs center on engineering, mechatronics (robotics) and multimedia technology – a perfect match for our community, which is rooted in Macomb County’s advanced automotive manufacturing base.

While ACT scores matter, career experiences and college preparation matter more. Being able to think, create, solve and apply content knowledge matters most. UCSI is promoting all of the above with industry-standard learning, business alliances and direct connections to Michigan workplace opportunities:

  • Ready to work –
    When the Michigan Economic Development Corporation created Michigan Advanced Technician Training (MAT2) to address the shortage of workers qualified to operate new systems-based technology, one-third of the positions went to UCSI students. Tuition costs for the three-year training program is paid by employers, with students earning on-the-job pay, an associate’s degree in a high demand technical field and a guaranteed job upon successful completion.

  • Automation Alley and MASB honors –
    UCSI earns the stamp of approval from business and education leaders alike. Automation Alley, a regional network of industry professionals who advocate high technology growth, named UCSI its educational program of the year. UCSI also won a Michigan’s Best award from the Michigan Association of School Boards for unique vision and proven results.

  • Paid apprenticeships –
    Businesses like Elite Mold and Engineering in Shelby Township and Orbitak International LLC, a German firm based locally in Troy, are placing UCSI students directly into paid positions while still in high school with postsecondary tuition possible for successful candidates.

  • National model –
    UCSI has been featured twice at annual National Career Academy Coalition conferences. The NCAC organization promotes high quality career educational experiences in and out of the classroom.

    Industry accolades aside, parents agree the one of a kind program gives their son or daughter a competitive edge when it comes to their future. “I feel like my son will have eight years of experience against the other college graduates seeking the same jobs,” said one. It’s a widely held opinion among parents, students and employers, judging from comments I’ve heard.

    UCSI represents the kind of advantage we must give Michigan’s students if we want them to bridge the skills gap – and more importantly the wage gap – global competitors are eager to fill.

    Christine M. Johns, Ed.D.
    Superintendent, Utica Community Schools