- The Washington Times - Monday, June 27, 2005

Stephen Martin found that running wire through insulation is not easy, something he says he would not have realized in the classroom.

Mr. Martin, a student in the electrical systems technician (EST) program at Lincoln Technical Institute in Columbia, Md., is learning how to install and terminate wires and cables in a 2,000-square-foot training building opposite the EST program’s seven classrooms.

“It’s the real deal. They teach you good stuff for real-life situations and getting out in the field,” Mr. Martin says.

EST students engage in classroom work before they work in the training building. They read, listen to lectures and practice what they learn on the dozen or so project boards in each of the classrooms. The project boards, which are mock workstations hanging on the walls, include the equipment needed to install a low-voltage system, such as a fire alarm or a telephone.

The students continue developing their skills in the Smart House, which sits inside the EST wing of the two-story, 100,000-square-foot school. The Smart House features residential and commercial areas in an incomplete framework, kept that way for the students to use for practice and examinations.

“Anything a consumer can purchase at a big-box electronics store, we train electrical system technicians to install through the EST program,” says Jason Roberts, skilled-trades instructional supervisor for Lincoln Educational Services Corp., which operates a network of 33 schools nationwide, including Lincoln Tech, based in West Orange, N.J.

EST students use the rooms in the Smart House to learn about low-voltage wiring of video, voice and data, telecommunication, entertainment, and security systems. Students learn how to drill pathways for wires and cables, how to install, and how to secure and terminate what they install. They learn how to set up and configure personal computers, along with how to install, test and troubleshoot local area network cabling systems.

“It gives them a chance to make all the mistakes they can make. We can correct them a lot easier here than in a customer’s home,” says Paul Poudrier, EST supervisor for Lincoln Tech. He oversees the 10 instructors who teach the eight courses in the EST program.

The structural walls in the Smart House are duplicated by practice or copy walls that students can hammer, screw and drill into. The copy walls, called “zipper walls” by the EST staff, are designed to be removed and replaced when they are riddled with too many holes from student work.

“We don’t have to worry about destroying the structure of the house,” Mr. Poudrier says.

EST students in the electrical-and-electronic-principles course, for example, wire data, phone and cable systems, then take down their work for the next class. Students in the communication-systems course learn the color codes for wire bundles and how to install telephone systems. Their final exam is making the phone ring on their instructor’s desk. They also install telephone lines in the Smart House.

In other courses, the students wire up a home office with a computer network, a home theater with surround sound and a closed-circuit security system with different types of video cameras, all in the Smart House.

“I like to be able to put things together and say, ‘I did that,’ and watch it work,” says Avia Miller of Anne Arundel County, who started in the program in April. “I like working with my hands, connecting things and making things work.”

Students are taught professional skills in addition to receiving technical training. They are required to wear work boots and a uniform to class, and a hard hat when they are in the Smart House. Fifteen percent of their grade is based on what are called “employability competency,” or professionalism, points.

Student lose points for being late to class or if their professionalism otherwise dwindles, Mr. Poudrier says.

“We equate it with work,” he says. “We need trained technicians out there. Let’s get these technicians the way they need to be.”

Christin Driscoll, senior director of public policy at the Association for Career and Technical Education in Alexandria, says she likes the idea of Lincoln Tech’s EST program.

Hands-on training shows students the relevance of what they are learning and the math and science applications of trade jobs, Ms. Driscoll says.

“Surveys by [trades] industry groups consistently find that employers have difficulty finding employees with the right skills for particular jobs. Some estimate that 70 to 90 percent of employers don’t get the right skills when they hire,” she says. “This kind of program is crucial because it not only helps the industry, it helps students learn and be able to earn more.”

The construction crafts, including low-voltage wiring, are experiencing a labor shortage, says Fred Humphreys, president and CEO of the Home Builders Institute, the work-force-development arm of the National Association of Home Builders in Northwest.

“As older workers are retiring, younger workers are not replacing them in sufficient numbers,” Mr. Humphreys says.

The construction industry, he says, needs to provide outreach on the number of career opportunities available in the trades, the wages and benefits employees can earn, and the availability of degreed positions.

“There’s a lot of misconceptions about the construction industry,” he says.

Mr. Humphreys considers a hands-on program to be an effective way to learn trade skills.

“Most people learn more rapidly if they read, then practice hands on,” he says.

Lincoln Tech’s hands-on program is offered in morning and afternoon sessions 25 hours a week for seven months, or 15 hours a week in the evening for 11 months. More than 180 students have completed the 720-hour certification program since it started in February 2004.

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