Paul Pelletier can’t understand why so many young people in America start their careers with mounds of college debt.
“At $1.6 trillion, college debt is an epidemic in our country,” said Pelletier, founder of Middletown High School’s new Aerospace and Manufacturing Center. “It’s outrageous that we do that to our kids.”
That’s why when students walk into classrooms at the school’s new center, they see a sign that says, Any Aerospace Career With a Little College Debt.
“That’s our pitch,” said Pelletier, a certified aircraft mechanic.
“We teach them that there are a lot of opportunities in aerospace in Connecticut and you don’t have to have all that college debt.”
The program is designed to provide students with “an industry responsive education,” he said.
Graduates of Connecticut’s technical high schools go into the state’s aerospace industry but there simply aren’t enough to meet the state’s massive workforce needs.
Pelletier and his colleagues are hoping their program can be a model for other comprehensive high schools and help provide what Colin Cooper, the state’s chief manufacturing officer, calls “the river of talent” manufacturers need.
“One of the hardest things to do in the state of Connecticut is get kids and parents interested in going down this path,” Pelletier said.
Marty Guay, Stanley Black & Decker’s vice president for business development, said parents and students need to understand that today’s manufacturing is clean, challenging, and well-paying.
“I know a lot of people think school is to prepare young adults for college but we believe they need to prepare them for careers,” Guay said in a recent webinar sponsored by CBIA affiliate ReadyCT.
He noted that Connecticut has the highest-paying manufacturing sector in the country with an average annual wage of $103,000.
“We need welders on the shop floor who can do computer diagnostics, who can evaluate software, who can understand statistics on a model on a screen next to where they’re welding jet engines—that’s how high tech it’s becoming,” Guay said.
In its first year, the Middletown High program has 133 students. Pelletier wants to enroll 250 students in the program each year.
“I want at least 20% of that population to go into something that leads them down the path to aerospace manufacturing,” he said.
So if a student goes into manufacturing, onto UConn to become an engineer, or to one of the state’s advanced manufacturing centers for more training, it will be a success, he said.
The ultimate goal is for the Middletown High program to succeed and be expanded statewide.
The program currently has three courses—drone and flight science, mechanical technology that involves work with CNC machines, and aerospace design.
Pelletier said the drone course is one way to pique students’ curiosity.
“That puts the kids in front of us for an academic year where we pitch the value of aerospace manufacturing in Connecticut,” Pelletier said.
He wants to develop a program that allows students to graduate from high school with the equivalent of an associate’s degree.
“The coolest thing to me is at the end of one year here, we’re going to have CNC certification that we can put on our resumés,” junior Paola Nassetta said.
“We’re going to look more marketable to businesses and get hired right out of high school. It gives you a huge edge up on other people.”
Addison Pina, another junior, said the program not only prepares him for college “but for a future job as well.”
“The school administration has given us everything we’ve needed to have success,” Pelletier said.
“It’s focused on moving the students into what I like to call the ‘middle class,’ with very minimal college debt,” said schools superintendent Michael Conner.
Shannon Marimón, executive director of CBIA affiliate ReadyCT, said the program “represents a solution we've been working to advance for quite some time.”
“Comprehensive high schools that invest strategically in work-based learning opportunities and curricula that respond to regional and statewide workforce needs will ultimately be making the greatest strides toward preparing their graduates for success in college, career, and life,” she said.
State of the Art
Marimón added that the facility design will undoubtedly be popular with students.
“It's state of the art, and it has high-tech labs, simulators, and the latest in equipment,” she said.
“The virtual reality goggles alone will serve as a real draw into fields that are no longer about uninspired work spaces but places where bright minds come together to solve problems driven by computer science, robotics, and information technology.”
Paul Murphy, executive director of Aerospace Components Manufacturers, said the program “is yet another shining example of how comprehensive high schools are listening to and addressing the needs of regional businesses.”
“The ACM applauds Middletown for listening to and supporting our industry by taking the initiative to launch this much needed program.”
Murphy said the program will succeed thanks to Pelletier, “who inspires the young and works well with industry,” and support from the school district and the manufacturing industry.
“It feels like we’re doing special work,” Pelletier said. “We’re participating in the economic redevelopment of Connecticut.”