April 07, 2020

Businesses thriving at schools > Job experience a benefit to vocational students

Paul Ringuette didn’t own a computer or have a clue how to use one when he signed up to work part time at Northern Computers Inc., a computer service center in Madawaska. He saw it as a way to get high school credit without having to sit in classrooms all day.

Now in his second year, Ringuette and the 14 other high school students at Northern Computers are repairing computers for their school systems, wiring their old classrooms for Internet connection and teaching former principals how to run software programs.

“I rip computers apart like it’s nothing,” said Ringuette, 17, with a touch of bravado. “It’s actually not that hard.”

Vocational high schools have offered computer repair programs since the 1980s, but in the last few years — like many other high school trade programs across the state — many have taken on a more businesslike bent. The shift has been accelerated by 10 $10,000 enterprise grants awarded to vocational high schools starting up school-based businesses or placing students at job sites.

The money came from the $12 million federal school-to-work grant, which was awarded to Maine in 1994 and reflects the state Department of Education’s renewed emphasis on preparing students for the work world by teaching them business skills along with their vocational — or academic — coursework.

Students at Northern Computers Inc. receive high school credit through a partnership started by one of the grants with St. John Valley Vocational Center in Frenchville and Wisdom and Madawaska high schools.

“In today’s world, all kids need to know something about business, whether they’re going to college or going to be artists or musicians,” said Sandra Long, a business and marketing consultant for the Department of Education. The programs funded by the $10,000 grants got off the ground last year. This year:

Fifty students from the welding, auto body and marketing programs at Caribou Applied Technology Center are designing and constructing Sno-Jaks, black metal racks that lift up snowmobiles so the treads won’t freeze to the ground when they’re in storage. They’re sold at local stores.

Welding students at the Northern Penobscot Technical Center in Lincoln used a software program to design and make black metal silhouettes of cows, ducks and horses. The decorations sell for $5 apiece at local shops.

Culinary arts students at Southern Aroostook Vocational Education in Houlton run a school-based restaurant that operates at lunch time. Students order the food, plan the menu, prepare it and set the prices, pay the bills and this year, saved enough to buy a new $2,700 compressor for the freezer.

In Brunswick and Waterville, students have set up graphics centers for Web page design and desktop publishing. In Farmington, they’re running a silk-screening business. In Biddeford, a student-run store sells locally made crafts ranging from jams to jewelry.

Computer technology students at Hancock County Vocational Center in Ellsworth run an Apple-certified service center and oversee the hundreds of computers used by the Ellsworth schools. They have repaired 189 computers since September.

At Hancock County Vocational Center, seven juniors in button-down shirts, chinos and splashy Looney Tunes ties are working on a backlog of 24 computers that piled up during the ice storm. Beethoven blasts from a CD-ROM tower and a blow-up model of the Starship Enterprise floats overhead. Billy Streng is formatting a hard drive, while Victor Chan pries a glossy, green network card out from a maze of colored wires, and Warren Dowling fishes for the right tiny screw to replace a faulty floppy drive.

“I tell them the first day, `Welcome to work,”‘ said instructor Hal Casey. With the skills they learn in the one- or two-year program, Casey said, his students can go out and get jobs in the computer repair field — and many graduates have, such as Rob Jordan, who now maintains the computer network for Bar Harbor Banking and Trust.

Others have learned that computer repair isn’t for them, but Jordan and Casey agree that computer experience isn’t likely to be wasted.

“Anything you do with computers is going to help you,” said Jordan. “Anything you do with business is dealing with computers.”

Northern Computers Inc. owner Vincent Frallicciardi said that by the time the students leave him, they could probably pass every test required for an associate’s degree in computer science. Plus, he said, they’re proficient in managing other staff, bookkeeping, working with frustrated customers and even going to small claims court to collect an unpaid bill.

“I can’t get anyone more qualified than these students,” said Frallicciardi. “I’ll probably hire 20 percent of them.”

The schools have to make sure their enterprises aren’t perceived as competing with “real” businesses. Last year, small produce farmers protested that the Presque Isle Regional Technology Center’s agriscience program constituted unfair subsidized competition. The program’s 159 students run a 30-acre farm and greenhouse, raising and selling hydroponic tomatoes, flowers, other vegetables, herbs, tropical fish and brook trout.

In Ellsworth, the computer repair business is overseen by an advisory committee made up largely of proprietors of local computer operations.

Lynn McNeal, director of Caribou Applied Technology Center, said the program adopted the Sno-Jak project because no one seemed to be making them locally.

In Houlton, the student-run restaurant won’t advertise so as not to compete with local establishments who have to pay their own utility bills and labor costs.

Last October, Rep. Irvin Belanger, R-Caribou, submitted a draft bill, which didn’t make it onto the agenda, asking the Legislature to develop guidelines for school-based initiatives so that they don’t cross the line and hurt local businesses.

“It’s not my impression that it’s a widespread problem,” said Belanger, “just in pockets.”

But employers who fear that school-based enterprises will create taxpayer-funded competition can take consolation in the fact that graduation looms only a year or two away — and one solid job offer with health insurance and a 401K plan could turn the upstart competitors into allies for life.

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