Pierce County Skills Center prepares IT students for actual IT jobs
This feature first appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
Monday through Friday, the Pierce County Skills Center, located in Puyallup, Wash., buzzes with activity. The Center’s mission is “to provide rigorous technical and professional experiences that prepare students for high demand, high wage jobs and post-secondary education,” and the staff does a terrific job.
Annually, the Center serves more than 500 juniors and seniors from 26 high schools with 14 in-demand career programs ranging all the way from Aerospace Composites to Pre-Veterinary Technology. No slackers these students — they want to be in class and are highly motivated to learn. They also understand and accept that the curriculum involves more work than a typical high school class, is fastpaced, and that they’ll get the unvarnished truth from instructors who have “been there and done that.”
Nowhere is the truth about a career spoken more loudly and with more conviction than in Room 103, where Adam Scroggins, the Center’s PC Networking and Hardware Repair instructor holds court. At the beginning of each term, he declares to his students, “I’m here to teach you technical skills, but five years from now, these skills will be outdated. So, I’m also going to teach you things that will help you keep a job and grow into a better employee.”
Scroggins clearly enjoys his work and is a no-nonsense mentor and instructor. He expects the best from his students and knows that tech skills alone aren’t enough to make one successful in IT — you also need to be able to work well with others.
“I keep in contact with past students. They all say how important soft skills are: talking to others and communicating in written form, and so forth,” said Scroggins. “The truth is that you have to be able to talk to people and often explain tech stuff to those who know nothing about tech.”
A workplace background
When it comes to applying soft skills in the workplace, Scroggins is an expert. He joined the Skills Center in 2011 after 10 years as a drafting engineer with a local company. While there, he worked closely with area high schools to develop a pool of future potential employees with an interest in drafting and IT.
His primary responsibility was to identify and place promising students in temporary positions within his company, with the possibility of full-time jobs upon graduation. “It was a win/win for all parties,” he said. “Every spring there was a big push to hire kids to help meet production goals. We had lots of success in hiring these kids for permanent positions in drafting and IT jobs for software development.”
As much as he enjoyed his time in the corporate world, Scroggins eventually decided to leave the industry because he had gotten “sick and tired of firing people after six months who didn’t have soft skills.” Scroggins decided to work directly with young people and preemptively teach them the skills to succeed in a corporate environment.
“I felt the need to become a teacher,” he said. “I realized that throughout my whole career, I was teaching on the corporate side of things: internal training for new hires, and whenever processes changed, and corporate training for clients and business partners.”
Turning to teaching
While working as a drafting engineer and teaching new hires and clients, Scroggins had also gotten involved with SkillsUSA, the national membership association serving more than 400,000 students who are preparing for careers in trade, technical and skilled occupations and future education.
Serving on SkillsUSA’s board of directors as an industry representative for five years, Scroggins realized how much he enjoyed working with the high school side of things. “I fell out of love with the job I was doing, and into love with teaching. I knew that I wanted to do something where I could make a meaningful impact and watch kids realize they are worth something and can go on to do great things.”
Reaching out to friends in the teaching field, Scroggins let them know of his desire to teach in engineering or IT, and soon landed his current position at the Skills Center. Once on board, he reached out to several respected colleagues for assistance in developing an IT curriculum.
“Frank Media and Brandon Brown are friends and mentors from my time with SkillsUSA,” he said. Media and Brown were an immense help providing guidance and ideas on curriculum development. “They were a great resource my first year.”
Help from the experts
Scroggins also assembled an advisory committee of trusted industry professionals who have provided invaluable assistance. Over the past six years the committee has grown to include industry experts, educators and even some former students, all of whom provide insights and timely support to the program.
One prominent member is the Central Pierce Fire and Rescue (CPFR) Department. CPFR at the time was already involved with the Center’s firefighting training classes as part of their Advisory Committee. A little-known aspect of modern day firefighting is the crucial role information technology plays in saving lives.
Because every truck and EMT vehicle is also a high-tech mobile office linked to a central network via sophisticated wireless devices, CPFR’s IT department was a natural fit for Scroggins’ advisory committee. Each year, the CPFR IT department purchases new equipment and sells off their old equipment. Whatever isn’t bought by the community is surplussed to Scroggins for use in his classes.
“Before CPFR’s IT department got involved, I used to have to beg for equipment wherever I could find it,” said Scroggins. “Without their help, the Center’s IT program would not be where it is today. Single-handedly, they have elevated our program with donated computers, switches and routers. Their equipment allows us to do so much more in class.”
Additional support from community partners and advisory members comes frequently in the form of job shadows and even job placements for Scroggins’ students.
Earning their way in
Scroggins’ classes consist almost entirely of juniors and seniors, and the only requirement to enroll in the IT program is that students have to have completed at least two years of high school-level math. Each year new juniors are informed that the only way they will be allowed back for a second year is to earn Scroggins’ approval. “I tell the juniors that this is a year-long interview to get into my second-year classes,” he said.
First-year students dive into a curriculum focused on CompTIA A+ and basic networking. Second-year students advance to a more in-depth course load of CompTIA Network+ and Security+. Scroggins developed his own personalized curriculum, and for the past five years has utilized TestOut Corporation’s PC Pro, Network Pro and Security Pro courseware, all equipped with LabSim simulation technology, to create many hands-on classroom activities.
Because the Center serves students from so many high schools, with different schedules, a one-size-fits-all classroom solution isn’t possible. If a student is unable to attend a regular class session, Scroggins tells them to pretend they are on a business trip and that they are still responsible for completing their work back at the office.
“LabSim fits perfectly into my program since students can utilize the online content to supplement any material they miss during a class day,” he said. “TestOut also provides generous support for our SkillsUSA efforts regionally and at the state level by providing us with exam vouchers for the state-level competitions.”
There are two class sessions daily, each running for two-and-a-half hours. Scroggins spends about 70 percent of his time with the first-year students instructing, and closely supervising their actions. Second-year students are being taught to be supervisors and managers and as such are more self-directed in their learning.
A bonus to Scroggins’ curriculum is that students have the opportunity to earn TestOut’s own certifications, PC Pro, Network Pro, and Security Pro. Additionally, since the courseware maps directly to CompTIA’s exam requirements, he strongly encourages students to attempt the equivalent CompTIA certifications. As a certified CompTIA training partner, he can purchase exam vouchers for interested students.
Big-picture workplace realities
One facet of Scroggins’ instruction that prepares students to hold actual IT jobs is an inter-departmental project that requires them to work closely with students from different programs. Working on joint projects with non-IT students requires coordination of schedules, timely and effective communication, goal setting, and meeting strict deadlines.
During the spring semester, students work together to design and manufacture working arcade systems that require them to work with machining, composites, and programming programs. For the students, participating in these inter-departmental projects is a great learning experience and can even lead to full-time employment.
“Last spring four of our students were pulled aside by members of the advisory board and requested to apply for jobs that were opening,” said Scroggins.
Just completing the IT classes can open doors for students. “Typically, a half-dozen or so students go straight into the work force upon graduation,” he said. “The remainder go on to college at the technical, community or university level, and a number go into the military.”
Help from the higher-ups
One pillar of the program’s success is the Center’s administrative team. “Our administration is the foundation of what drives our success,” said Scroggins. “In my opinion, we are the best skills center in the State because our administration is always there to provide direction and support.”
Since most of the Center’s instructors came directly from industry, they have had little if any formal teacher training. According to Scroggins, instructor training is the administration’s strong point. “Our professional development training is always relevant and specific to our needs,” he said.
“They are great at listening to us about what training we need and then going and finding it. I just can’t say enough good things about the Center’s admin team.”
Administration takes pride in Scroggins’ efforts and success with the students. While the national average for high-schoolers passing their certification exams is 63 percent, during the last three years, 90 percent of the Center’s IT students passed their exams on the first or second attempt.
“I tell them I’m not running this like a high school class. We are competing against the colleges — that is my expectation,” said Scroggins.
Skills Center officials value that outlook. Scroggins’ success, said center director Michelle Ledbetter, is largely because of his “commitment to ensuring that students not only understand, but demonstrate, the leadership and employability skills required by our business partners.
“He continually integrates, and models, professional communication, customer service, and a strong work ethic. As a result, our students successfully transition to direct employment and post-secondary training programs.”
Molding young minds
Scroggins enjoys teaching young people because “they are eager to learn and not set in their ways,” and feels he learns as much from his students as they do from him. “I’m challenged every day with questions and requests for projects,” he said.
“Several times a year I have to tell the students ‘I’ve never done that, but I think we can figure it out,’ and then we as a class (myself included) research, plan and implement the project.”
According to Scroggins, the biggest hurdle to teaching high school students is overcoming their short attention spans and lack of “grit.” He bemoans the overreliance on digital assistants like Apple’s Siri. “Students use technology as a crutch and have difficulty using it as a tool,” he said. “If they can’t find an answer on Google or YouTube in five minutes or less, they want to give up.”
Because real world projects take weeks and often months to complete, Scroggins teaches students to take notes, chart a course, track their progress, and remain focused. “Students who figure out this aspect of my classes and the industry are the ones that I give personal references to, because they are the ones who will be able to invest in the long run and see success,” he said.
Certifications serving students
The emphasis on real world skills is why certifications play such a prominent role in Scroggins’ classes. “I believe in certifications as a demonstration of a skill set, and would like to see the industry go away from multiple-choice memorization style exams and focus more on practical testing,” he said.
“I like to say don’t tell me you know something, show me you know it. I believe certifications will continue to be a growing part of the industry as more niche markets open up. And with each certification you can show, your wages will go up.”
Feedback from the community supports Scroggins’ view of certifications. Local colleges and universities report that students with certifications succeed at higher rates in their programs, and local employers report that his students who enter the workforce upon graduation rarely stay in entrylevel positions for long.
“I believe in teaching more than the students need to know to pass their certifications and, as such, the certification exams become almost a formality. It sets them up for success at the next stage in their education or work life,” said Scroggins.
The impact of Scroggins’ approach extends beyond certification. “He has established a classroom culture that allows students to take risks, to understand that failure is part of the path to success, and that perseverance is what’s required for improvement,” said Ledbetter.
Remembering what’s important
Teaching young people isn’t always smooth sailing. There are days when the computers fail to do what you want, a student is upset and distracted about something outside of class, or a “new and exciting” piece of curriculum turns out to not be so new and exciting. At times like these, it’s understandable that an instructor may question their choice of a career.
Like all good teachers, Scroggins has a tried-and-true means of reminding himself why he is teaching. He maintains a wall of photos of past and present students, and reflects on how his classes helped changed the course of their lives.
One student he often thinks of had a particularly rough upbringing. Although not a top student, he was a good student who joined the U.S. Air Force upon graduation. The student maintained contact with Scroggins and on one visit told him how much he had hated learning protocols in his IT classes.
Upon enlisting, this former student took a placement test and realized that “the questions on the placement test were all about protocols” that he had learned under Scroggins. He scored so high on the test that he was selected to work in encryption and cryptology.
During their visit, Scroggins showed him that what he was doing in the Air Force would earn him a lot of money in the corporate world. The young airman was surprised and somewhat doubtful of deserving that level of success. “My family doesn’t do that,” he said.
Scroggins’ response is what every teacher wants to say to students who glimpse new horizons, “Your family didn’t do that,” he said. “But you just changed your family, and you will now be very successful.”