This Month’s Featured Article

Getting Schooled at Work

By Published On: May 28th, 2021

I’m the Coordinator of the Career Experience Program at Housatonic Valley Regional High School (HVRHS) in Falls Village, CT. This initiative helps students become more career aware and expose them to opportunities to gain that awareness. In this Covid year, it’s been a challenge to create opportunities for worthwhile career-related interactions in the absence of in-person job shadows, internships, and career fairs.

I’ve been calling it a building year, thinking about big-picture priorities and strategies. One way I’m doing this is through my participation on behalf of the school in the pilot Building Tomorrow’s Workforce (BTW) Externship Program. It has been a godsend in connecting me with other educators and career program staff in schools around the State, BTW program staff, and speakers from various Connecticut employers.

The BTW Externship Program is a collaboration between the Joyce D. and Andrew J. Mandell Academy for Teachers at the Connecticut Science Center, the Connecticut State Department of Education and Ready CT initiative of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association.

The goal of BTW is to “gather insight into the current workforce” by gaining exposure to the skills that workplaces seek in their employees. In turn, program participants bring that knowledge back to their schools. The externship takes educators out of the school building. It places them in a partner workplace to interact with employees about their jobs, gain a firsthand understanding of the skills needed, and hear about the varied paths to careers.

Career and Technical Education

The focus of the BTW is on careers in health, information technology, and science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The program examines these career clusters through the lens of Career and Technical Education (CTE) courses and programs. CTE courses are those that are more career preparatory in nature. They include offerings in business, computer science, health, engineering, and technical education, such as metalworking and carpentry.

Why these specific clusters and why through CTE courses? Because these are the areas of job growth in Connecticut and throughout the country. Research shared by BTW indicates that jobs in these areas will continue to grow through 2026, and the cumulative job openings across all these fields are upwards of 16,000 per year.

CTE is the perfect vehicle for cultivating technical skills and the inaptly named “soft skills.” These vital hard-won capacities are the ones that allow workers to stay nimble in the face of workforce changes. Soft skills are portable, transferrable, and in high demand. They include collaboration, cooperation, speaking, listening, executive function, curiosity, creativity, gratitude, and problem solving.

Getting granular

HVRHS has a CTE Program Career Cluster in its agricultural education department but it isn’t a specialized CTE high school. We also have courses that tick other CTE boxes.

My goal in participating in this program has been to understand on a granular level what skills employers are looking for and convey that information to teachers and school leadership. An employer might say they want applicants with math skills. But which ones – specifically? This is not so the school can teach to the job. Instead, it’s to inform how we can cover the curriculum and make real-world connections.

I also hope to reinforce my school community’s awareness of where job growth is in the northwest corner of Connecticut and statewide and use the evidence I’ve gained to help persuade students that the courses they take and the skills they gain in high school really do matter in the “real world.”

Enhancing my network of local professionals and creating a closer relationship with one of the northwest corner’s largest employers is another substantial benefit.

Happy 60th, BD Canaan

My externship placement has been a local one at BD (Becton Dickinson Company), a New Jersey-based leading global medical technology company and manufacturer of medical devices with 80 manufacturing sites worldwide. Set back off Route 7 in a low-slung building in Canaan, CT, this BD site has been making syringes and needles for the past 60 years. It’s here that nearly 450 employees work round the clock in a facility that measures 360,000 square feet (around 10 acres). A map in the hallway shows the reach of BD syringe customers, which radiates from Canaan in all directions.

BD Canaan’s output of syringes and needles clocks in at 80 per second, equating to 7 million a day. Providing syringes and needles for COVID vaccinations drove that figure to over 3 billion syringes in 2020. Back in 1961, the year that the Canaan plant opened, it produced 10 million hand-assembled glass syringes.

The BD of today is not your grandparent’s version of manufacturing. It’s clean, orderly, and highly technical with numerous entry points, skill levels, and an emphasis on diversity of all kinds.

Arriving at BD, my contact, HR Administrative Coordinator Anubys “Ruby” Swartz, greets me enthusiastically and typifies the BD employees that I met throughout the day. Driven by her desire to move up, Swartz began with BD on the production line working nights. She progressed through several departments and discovered her love for the human side of the manufacturing business.

This winter, Swartz earned her bachelor’s degree in organizational management, courtesy of her hard work and BD’s generous tuition reimbursement program. While being promoted up and across the company, she identifies the skills that helped her – a hunger to progress, attention to detail, self-advocacy, communication skills, and a curiosity to know how things work so she can fix them herself.

She loves her job, her family of coworkers, and BD’s workplace culture, which thrives on the purposeful knowledge that medicine is life-saving, but without the syringes and needles they make to deliver it, that beneficial drug is not going anywhere.

Toolmaker’s apprentice

Our first stop on the externship visit was the tool room. It’s here that toolmakers create the tools and parts needed for the machines and robots that manufacture the syringes and needles and move them throughout the plant.

Brett Benham, a former apprentice and now a toolroom technician, works with two apprentices. Ephram Aragi was a forklift operator who wants a change and a more straightforward path to greater skill and stability. Jamie Miasek is a recent high school graduate who needs to understand how things work on the ground before pursuing an engineering degree.

Apprenticeships in the trades provide an exciting opportunity to earn while you learn. With a combination of work experience and theory, apprentices accumulate hours and pay increases as they progress through the program, which takes several years.

While BD provides supervised work experiences, an apprentice gains the theory hours in night classes at Oliver Wolcott in Torrington, CT, or Northwestern Community College in Winsted, CT. Both Aragi and Miasek enjoy the hands-on application of the academic subjects they took in high school, math being the prime example.

I asked Benham about which skills specifically help toolmakers in this highly-mechanized precision process and what advice he might have for teachers in high school. “Find those students with mechanical ability – the ones who take apart an engine or like using tools. Try to encourage them to explore the trades. There’s demand and stability in the trades, along with the ability to move up. As for math skills, I rely on trigonometry concepts, Cartesian coordinates in graphing, arcs, circles, and lines,” articulates Benham. The non-technical skills he reels off are punctuality, patience, coachability, willingness to learn, admitting mistakes, and accepting you will make them (that’s a big one).

Engineering a career

The next stop was a visit with Rodrigo Silveira, manufacturing engineering leader in process engineering. He joined BD after an internship at its home office in New Jersey. With a master’s degree in mechanical and civil engineering, he ensures all machines and robots operate safely, efficiently, and at capacity to meet production commitments on time. Part of his job is troubleshooting, creating workarounds, and figuring out ways to make current equipment more flexible and serve multiple purposes.

I inquired what skills are helpful to be successful on his team. His response is immediate, “Project management is critical. That means being able to see a project through from concept to completion, define the resources you’ll need, devise contingency plans, anticipate problems, and meet financial budgets and targets.” He refers to a Gantt Chart, a much-used project management tool that gauges activities across time. It includes a start date, end date, and duration depicted in a bar form and illustrates the overlap of various tasks and departments involved.

Another skill Silveira points to is communication. For him, this includes understanding and establishing communication channels and fluency in the terminology of the equipment and processes. “Presentation skills are also needed. Presentations in school are very different than work. At school, you build your case and arrive at a conclusion. At work, we want the result right up front, then include the steps for anyone who wants to look at them.” This professional writing and presentation style is much more akin to the journalistic genre.

Landon Phillips, Silveira’s office mate and fellow engineering leader arrived at his title via a different path. He’s been with BD for over 20 years and has worked his way up from an entry-level position, incorporating that fundamental knowledge gained in previous roles as he’s progressed. Both he and Silveira agree that younger employees must be able to take feedback without taking it personally. It’s not about them as individuals; it’s about their professional growth, the success of the team and the organization, and being able to do the job well – and owning the job they do.

Both emphasize the importance of understanding who in the organization can help you get the job done. Your colleagues are a resource, just like the raw materials. It’s essential to know how to utilize all your resources. Every project involves multiple departments who intertwine and engage with production at different stages. No link in the production chain acts in isolation from any other link.

Solving problems

Caleigh Waskowicz is a recent Worcester Polytechnic Institute graduate with a degree in biomedical engineering and a minor in electrical and computer engineering. She’s part of BD’s Manufacturing Development Program (MDP) program, a three-year rotational introduction to diverse aspects of BD’s business. Finishing up her first year at the Canaan plant, she’ll transfer to the Baltimore area for year two.

“Engineering is such a broad field. For me, it’s less about specific studies and more about finding what suits my passions and values. This year I’ve practiced my problem-solving skills, as well as communication. I’ve gained comfort in creating structure instead of having it provided for me,” explains Waskowicz.

This year, Waskowicz’s main task was to address inefficiencies in the Molding Tote Handling System (MTHS). “We love acronyms here!” she chuckles. MTHS is a transportation system that transfers products from the presses where syringe components are created to the lines where the complete product is assembled and packaged. Her mission: determine why totes that carried product were being rejected by the system at a high rate, which slowed down production.

Fast forward, and through conversations with team members, observations of the process, and lots of hard thinking and creativity, she was able to isolate and ascertain the problem, fix it, and create a training video for newly hired operators. “My clients are the operators. I need to understand what they’re experiencing and how they’re engaging with the system. I also need to clearly define my problem and bring my training and creativity to solving it. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is showing gratitude for what people do and how they help me get my job done.”

A place for everything

Project Support Specialist Silcris Gomez is a technical writer with a gift for creating order from chaos. She loves devising information systems to support each project and ensure all the documentation is updated and disseminated to all project team members.

New to BD, her role is to draft documents, process production change requests, and update protocols for each project. She enjoys working with computer systems and is currently pursuing her engineering technology associate’s degree, having already earned a certificate in quality control from Gateway Community College.

Her ability to recreate herself professionally comes from being open to learning new things and putting herself in new roles and unfamiliar situations. “I’ve always been curious, and I like to organize and take tasks step-by-step. Although I haven’t been here long, it’s been really important to depend on my coworkers and keep asking questions until I find someone who has the answers.

Lessons learned

I still have two more visits with BD this spring as the BTW Externship program culminates. However, I’ve seen enough to understand that there are various entry points into this global company. A high school graduate in an entry-level machine operator position can earn a living wage with benefits, pursue a degree or further training with the tuition reimbursed, and be part of a purpose-driven organization. Once hired, opportunities to move in all directions are available to those who prove themselves.

I understand more readily how the skills developed in the school curriculum can become the foundation for success at work. Technical skills are essential for sure. So is showing up with enthusiasm and collegiality, bringing your A-game to whatever your job requires, knowing how to learn and find the information you need, and recovering from mistakes. My time at BD through the BTW Externship Program has reinforced that these skills are all part of the package known as career success.