On a sunny Friday afternoon in early June, the chatter is high near the back of the DECO Coatings campus. A large space with multiple warehouse-sized buildings, DECO Coatings is an industrial coating business located just southwest of downtown Indy, with a long list of organizational certifications, that handles primarily industrial and government projects. The group of students and parents and DECO staff could be easy to miss if not for the cheerful conversations – they are all gathered in and around a small standalone building that looks like a little house.
“We had a building, and some big ideas,” said DECO’s president, Janet South. This is the building where students learn, careers take off, and a family has been formed through a unique collaboration. “Tracy Hartman of EmployIndy introduced us to The Crossing School – we will be forever grateful for that.”
Hartman is one of EmployIndy’s employer engagement managers who works with local businesses to uncover opportunities related to their workforce needs. This introduction and guidance has resulted in a rich work-based learning program that brings students from The Crossing School into DECO for a combination of “academics, skill building, work experience, and training – but also mentorship from the heart,” said Crossing School regional director, Alyssa Vanvactor. “We hope to provide students the ability to be a contributing member of their community, while also training up the next round of our partners’ employees.”
She describes The Crossing School (which has campuses all over Indiana) as a landing spot for students who struggle in traditional high school due to various barriers or learning styles. Locally they also partner with Gaylor Electric and Kirby Risk, with the DECO partnership officially kicking off in January of 2019 with a small cohort of high school juniors and seniors.
“It is far beyond what we expected,” Janet South said, acknowledging the time and effort that went into setting up the infrastructure for such a collaboration, but also gushing with excitement for the program. “Beyond the return on investment for developing talent, it has been amazing for our existing staff.”
Initially, South’s staff of skilled tradespeople were concerned about the students slowing down their fast-paced work environment – but after just a short amount of time and training, they were singing a different tune.
For existing staff, South said “building this community increases job satisfaction. It is hard work, but has lead to higher-level buy-in because they feel accountable for the students – it has changed the morale for all of us.”
As for the students involved, she noted their growth as an exciting new part of what used to be routine work. “Students learned that a ‘menial task’ was a big necessity for their coworkers – and they don’t want to let people down. You could watch these young people developing the trait of accountability.” Additionally, students were able to participate in trade shows, work off-site for projects, receive hands-on equipment training, and earn valuable industry certifications like OSHA 10 or OSHA 30 that can help them continue a career at DECO or elsewhere.
On this sunny Friday afternoon, the crowd of parents, classmates, and program contributors are gathered to recognize two students who have fully invested in the program and are set to begin their internationally recognized two-year SSPC apprenticeship, right there at DECO. “Students graduate ready to be hired,” said Vanvactor. “Many of them stay and become a part of the company, because it is already their home.”
That is exactly what graduate Kenny Bacon plans to do, citing a semester at DECO as good preparation to move from student to coworker. “This built me as a better person, it motivated me,” said Bacon. “Now I am officially hired to keep learning hard skills and soft skills. Before January 15th, I had no plan – this has helped me as a person to have better priorities, and now I have lots of opportunity.”
EmployIndy’s Tracy Hartman identifies this partnership as a prime example of the way local businesses can and should engage with young people to build skilled talent pipeline in a tight labor market. “Essentially they are getting a chance to ‘try before they buy,'” says Hartman. “After a time of bonding and mentoring, it is clear if they will be a good fit.”
And what of a student who might not be a good fit? “Not all students enter the apprenticeship program,” said South. “One of them will be working in our office.”
She was speaking about Eanne Beuoy, a student who struggled with the manual labor and the heat and sweat of coating work on the floor. Eager to find a role that could be a better fit for Eanne, Janet South moved her into the air conditioned office where she has been able to develop administrative skills that are also important to DECO.
“I had a hard time being on the floor,” Beuoy said, “but I fit in the office, being organized with files and working on my social skills on the phones.” She was provided a call script for phone calls, and worked with South to practice customer service while also diving into the details of supporting the administrative work of the office.
Her mother, Lara Beuoy, was excited to see Eanne continue with DECO into her senior year. “It’s obvious people learn differently,” she said. “[Eanne] excels with this hands-on style of learning. This has really been wonderful – the confidence in succeeding this way is amazing.”
The willingness from the top of DECO’s leadership to support students transitioned into an entire staff who worked to lift up these students, with everyone involved and quick to describe the group as “family.” Grateful students even banded together, unprompted, to write a thoughtful “thank you” to a DECO member who took particular care of their learning and growth.
For all the positives, there is nuance to a work-based learning arrangement like this one – details had to be ironed out regarding an initial investment, tax credits, space for class, and a small computer lab for student work. And even though this year’s graduates are sticking to the apprenticeship path, there is no guarantee that students will stay with DECO after they matriculate.
But for South, Vanvactor, Hartman, and all the students involved, it has become about more than that.
As Janet South says, “These students may not stay at DECO, but wherever they land they will have skill sets that employers will value for the rest of their lives.”
To see how your business can get involved in work-based learning, contact us.