Column: Workplace Training Starts With the Core

Like many manufacturers around the state, Hypertherm needs critical thinkers and people capable of solving problems that require a strong foundation in math. Yet I often observe that far too many high school graduates applying for jobs don’t have the math skills required to succeed in advanced manufacturing positions.

New Hampshire has great schools with excellent teachers. So what’s getting in the way of having a skilled work force? Many employers are seeking to understand this question. The implications extend far beyond the classroom. I believe businesses need to step up and partner with educators and educational systems. Educators alone can’t solve the problem.

In the meantime, though, I think New Hampshire has taken an important step toward correcting the skills gap by adopting the Common Core education standards and the tests associated with them. These standards are important for preparing students for the modern economy and for jobs at places such as Hypertherm, which designs and manufactures equipment in the Upper Valley for cutting steel.

Work force development is an important issue to me, and thus I have taken a personal interest in the state curriculum standards. The two are connected. For many years now, Hypertherm has taken steps to address work force development needs. Because of the gap in skills found among Hypertherm’s job applicants, the company has found it necessary to create its own specialized training program with help from the River Valley Work force Institute and in partnership with River Valley Community College. Newly hired associates immerse themselves full time for nine weeks, learning basic math, algebra, geometry and trigonometry. They earn college credit and apply their new skills in ways that mirror upcoming job responsibilities.

Of course, we at Hypertherm would prefer that job applicants came to us with a strong foundation in math and were able to demonstrate their mastery before starting work, allowing us to focus our training on advanced manufacturing concepts. This is where the Common Core comes in. I am hopeful that students’ preparation for the work force will improve as more and more New Hampshire students complete their elementary and high school education having been exposed to the state standards, which were adopted in 2010.

In the past year, I’ve become more familiar with the standards, in particular the math standards. I have engaged in conversations with educators, administrators and parents about them. As a result of what I’ve learned, I am a strong supporter of the Common Core. The standards are rigorous and focus on evidence-based outcomes aligned with the expectations and requirements of post-secondary schools, employers and, I might add, of basic citizenship. These standards are necessary and are already having an impact in schools. I’ve already seen how they can help prepare students for the workplace.

For example, let’s look at a specific Common Core fifth-grade standard that introduces the Cartesian coordinate system — x and y coordinates. The standard requires fifth-graders to plot points in a two-dimensional space. This is a basic required competency of all machine operators at Hypertherm. Understanding the coordinate system is necessary to operating a CNC machine (computer numeric controlled) and to plotting x and y points on various pieces of inspection equipment. However, it has been our experience at Hypertherm that many of our students require substantial refresher training in this and other basic math concepts prior to joining the company. Imagine being introduced to this concept in fifth grade and then building on this knowledge in subsequent years, as is the design of the Common Core standards. And imagine as a student seeing this concept come to life in the workplace.

The standards are flexible, respecting the way children learn. Teachers can modify the curriculum to adjust to the learning styles of their students. This happening today, for example, at the state’s Career and Technical Education Centers, secondary schools that provide a contextual learning environment. They help students meet the immediate challenges of economic development by preparing them for specific careers. They make the link between academics and the skills students need in the workplace. But they can’t do that alone. The business community needs to partner with these and other schools to heighten awareness of the constantly changing needs in the workplace. We owe that to our future work force.

The state Department of Education and hundreds of New Hampshire teachers have spent several years planning for the standards, reviewing drafts and providing feedback. Their voices are reflected in the standards. That said, not everyone agrees that these standards are right for New Hampshire’s children. There has been public criticism and attempts to persuade New Hampshire to reconsider its position. Five bills in the state Legislature aim to change or even eliminate the standards and the assessments connected with them. That’s unfortunate.

I believe the Common Core standards will ensure that our students are well prepared for work. I believe they will enable our students to become stronger problem-solvers and critical thinkers — better able to make sense of the world around them. Embedding these standards into our classrooms is an important step for the economic development of New Hampshire.

Change is difficult. I want to thank our New Hampshire teachers and administrators for their hard work in putting these improved standards to work for our students and hope they remain in place.

Barbara Couch is vice president for corporate social responsibility at Hypertherm Inc. in Lebanon.