Innovative and Engaging Education Approaches: Inspiring & Preparing Tomorrow’s Workforce |

Innovative and Engaging Education Approaches: Inspiring & Preparing Tomorrow’s Workforce

Innovative and Engaging Education Approaches:  Inspiring & Preparing Tomorrow’s Workforce

By Bill Lydon, Editor,

With today’s skills gap looming large in the industry, it should come as stand to reason that tomorrow’s engineers need to get out from behind the desk.  Educational institutions are getting the tools they need to create that innovative learning education approach that inspires and prepares students to be successful in the modern workplace.  One such example is Georgia’s THINC Academy. The THINC Academy is working to address the skills gap problem by engaging students with the fundamental knowledge and skills to be productive.  THINC Academy already has a success record adding skilled, motivated, and well-rounded workers to help close the skills gap with their educational approach. first learned about the THINC Academy in 2016.  THINC College & Career Academy is a public charter school and Georgia nonprofit corporation, located in LaGrange, near the Alabama border. Created by a diverse, public-private partnership,  THINC opened the 2015-16 school year with 500 students and is on track to enroll over 800 students for the 2018-19 school term.    THINC is part of the Georgia Troup County School System and serves 9th - 12th grade students who attend the THINC campus at West Georgia Technical College in LaGrange. Students are transported to the Academy from their base high school for half the day, with the system high school serving as their school of record.  

The THINC academic model is flexible, technology-rich and responsive to students and teacher needs. Authentic workplace curriculum extends learning beyond the traditional classroom. Personalized instruction is incorporated through internships with dual high school / college credit opportunities available.


A Career Focused Educational Approach

THINC works to shape 11th to 12th grade high school students to be “work savvy” when entering the workforce.  The school equips students with technical and career-specific skills including the soft skills of business – a firm handshake, a strong work ethic and critical thinking skills.  THINC provides dual Enrollment courses, enabling Troup County high school students to take college-level courses directly from college instructors, earn college credit and receive high school credit at the same time.  Dual Enrollment programs ease the transition from high school to college, provide a way to earn college credit while students learn, and offers meaningful and challenging academic experiences to qualified students.

Students attending the program connect academic subjects to career tech pathways, while exploring career options, and emulating work-savvy ideas and behaviors. The school culture embeds concepts of leadership and entrepreneurship into the curriculum, providing an innovative environment where young minds envision their lives working in manufacturing, engineering, energy, healthcare, business, and marketing careers. The hands-on, project-based instruction provides a learning environment that challenges students to understand the “real-world” of work, while completing high school and, in many cases, a technical certification. The goal at the end of the curriculum is to have students that are equipped with career and college goals, leadership/work ethic behaviors, and a plan to succeed after graduation.


The THINC Motivation

The idea of a college and career academy first began in Troup County, following the arrival of KIA Motors Manufacturing GA (KMMG) in 2006.  The county and region quickly realized an overwhelming demand for a rapidly growing workforce.  In 2013, following numerous visits to college and career academies across the state, and meetings with the Lt. Governor, the community and school leadership unanimously agreed to pursue a college and career application and charter.  The only hurdle was a lack of funds.  Spiraling from several years of deficit budgets, the school system could not afford to open an academy.  Fortunately, with the support of community, government and industry leadership, the academy opened without tapping into local school system funds.


Responding to a Community Need

As part of the pre-charter application research, the community conducted an Employer Needs Assessment Report, which captured the current and projected workforce needs of 188 organizations, with a total of 17,207 employees.  The report identified the top employment sectors as Mechatronics, Energy, Healthcare, Engineering, Business, and Marketing. A minimum of 4,000 new STEM-related jobs are expected to be created by Troup County employers in the next five years. Employers ranked soft skills such as work ethic, showing up to work on time and teamwork as more important to sustaining employees than job-specific technical training and experience. The community, the THINC governing board, and the school system listened to the employer’s feedback and made soft-skills development a key driver in the THINC culture.


Financing this New Approach

The first step in using charter flexibility began with the board immediately initiating a fund-raising campaign to enable the use of private funds to pay salaries and benefit for five employees to execute the startup activities such as facility renovations, furniture, equipment, technology acquisition, and hiring of teachers.  Since 2014, the college and career academy non-profit has received over $10 million in grants and private donations from 62 individuals, companies and/or foundations. Private funds are also used to compensate the CEO, and to supplement the FTE dollars for each student ($1000 per student).  A few examples of the use of private donations are:

  • Professional Development opportunities for faculty and staff
  • Support for student organization competitions
  • Technology such as computer carts in almost every classroom, a math lab with wall to wall interactive promethean walls, and Vizitech 3-D technology for math and science
  • A state-of-the-art science and math lab with over $800,000 in renovations and equipment
  • Over one million dollars in mechatronics and engineering equipment
  • Hands-on-learning budgets for all career instructors


Tomorrow’s Teachers- Subject Matter Experts

In partnership with the Troup County School System (TCSS), THINC has used their flexibility to hire non-teacher certified, industry-experienced instructors in career classes.  These instructors bring a real-world experience to the classroom and the ability to engage industry in teaching and learning. In addition, THINC and the TCSS Human Resources department developed a salary rubric for high-demand instructors such as mechatronics and healthcare.  This flexibility is used to fill positions often left vacant due to competitive salaries.


A World of Employer Engagement

As a college and career academy, THINC is heavily influenced by employers and responsive to workforce demands.  THINC has three employer Advisory Groups made up of over 60 organizations.  In addition, many community and government leaders are supportive of the THINC effort.  Almost daily, one can find some employer in a classroom assisting teachers, or using the THINC Board room. THINC students are called on for presentations, to attend employer meetings such as strategic planning, safety councils, non-profit board meetings, etc.  In addition, students are given real-world challenges from employers to enhance problem solving. One such request was from the Executive Director of the Amphitheater who tasked them with a social media plan.  The school also hosted the THINC FAST event speed interviewing event, which featured over 50 employers doing mock job interviews with THINC students throughout the day, and provided feedback regarding interviewing skills, and resumes.


Building Soft Skills

In order to ensure well-rounded education, students are evaluated on thirteen soft skills (30% of grade) as well as their understanding of academic course content (70% of grade). The THINC philosophy behind this is that students cannot be fully prepared to enter a college or workforce without these skills:

  • Attendance - Reports to school / work, arrives and leaves on time and notifies supervisor in advance of planned absences.
  • Teamwork - Respects the rights of others, respects confidentiality, is a team worker, is cooperative, is assertive, displays a customer service attitude, seeks opportunities for continuous learning and demonstrates mannerly behavior.
  • Problem Solving - Thinks through a problem and resolves it.
  • Initiative- Displays the energy or aptitude to initiate action; is self-reliant and enterprising.
  • Productivity - Follows safety practices, conserves materials, keeps work area neat and clean, follows directions and procedures and completes tasks.
  • Communication - Displays appropriate nonverbal (eye contact, body language) and oral (listening, telephone etiquette, grammar) skills.
  • Cooperation - Displays leadership skills, appropriately handles criticism, conflicts and complaints. Demonstrates problem–solving capability, maintains appropriate relationships with supervisors and peers and follows the chain of command.
  • Respect - Deals appropriately with cultural / racial diversity; does not engage in harassment of any kind.
  • Appearance - Displays appropriate dress, grooming, hygiene and etiquette.
  • Attitude - Demonstrates a positive attitude, appears self-confident and has realistic expectations of self.
  • Sense of Urgency - Works as quickly and efficiently as possible to achieve the goal.
  • Adaptability - Adjusts easily and appropriately to people and to shifting work demands.
  • Attention to Details - Understands and remembers the sequential steps of a prescribed process as well as the overall objective.


Getting Results

Thus far, the THINC Academy is showing some impressive results, educating high school students from all socio-economic backgrounds, including those at risk.  A look at their 2017-2018 by the Numbers:

  • Enrollment (10th – 12th grade):  640
  • Attendance: 96%
  • Discipline Referrals: 2%
  • Soft Skills: 86% passing
  • Parent Satisfaction: 93%
  • Community Satisfaction: 93%
  • Graduation Rate (12th grade): 99%


Inside the Siemens Commitment

As we’ve covered previously, Siemens is one of the companies heavily involved with THINC. Siemens’ Raj Batra - President of the Digital Factory (DF) Division U.S. -  is committed to education and community is many discussions we have had over the last few years.  He shared his thoughts on the value of THINC and the industry landscape at the event. 

It’s safe to say that we are experiencing an industrial revolution and it’s also safe to say that it’s unstoppable, as manufacturers embrace new and disruptive forms of technology and innovation. Whether it’s called Industrie 4.0, the Internet of Things or just the fourth revolution, the question I hear most from our industrial customers is the same: How do I successfully move into the digital age and where do I find talent to keep my operations running?

Manufacturing will always be about more than what we make, or even what we add to the nation’s GDP. Our bigger value is our ability to open doors into the middle class and to restore people’s faith in the American dream.

Public-private partnerships will be required to build the workforce of the future. We need to scale up models that work. Solving for the misalignment between skills and jobs available requires a regional approach, because the skills needed in Georgia are different from those needed in California or Washington DC. If we can support the creation of more institutions like THINC College & Career Academy, the country is in a much stronger position to close the gap.

Siemens Raj Batra, President of the Digital Factory (DF) Division for Siemens in the U.S. touring THINC.

It is a privilege to partner with institutions such as THINC College and to see how practical hands-on training programs can indeed equip the next generation of engineers. The students in these programs will change the world as we know it with technology and innovation, and we are proud to be a part of their journey.

The automation equipment being donated to THINC is the same type of equipment that you would find at Kia, as well as automakers around the globe. Students will receive hands-on training, for example programming robotic movements, but will also continue to engage in important soft skills such as teamwork, problem solving, communication and cooperation. By partnering with Siemens, THINC students will be fully prepared to pursue their career choice, while also being able to offer valuable skills to the future workforce. This will ensure that students are trained and fluent with one of the most popular and powerful brands in automation, all through hands-on experience.


Bill’s Thought & Observations

There has been intense discussion, across many forums, about the need for training the “new” workforce. Still, today, only a few have acted. THINC College & Career Academy is one institution that has taken talk and good intentions and put it into practical application.   Companies including Siemens, KIA Motors, Georgia Power, sponsoring employers, and others should be applauded for supporting this initiative and programs.

The issues with the United States educational system are deep and complex. An almost ‘cookie-cutter’ approach results in a great deal of wasted money thrown at education programs and methods that are outdated, and do not benefit today’s students.  The educational community should take a fresh look at creating engaging educational approaches as THINC has done.    The educational community needs to start thinking like the industry that has been focused on improving productivity and quality using superior strategies, methods, and technology.

THINC is not the only institution pushing education forward, There are a handful of other notable educational institutions in addition to THINC, which  I have noted in the related article below.


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The 'emerged' skill crisis …

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