Simulated workplace helps give students skills needed for jobs

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By Kera Mashek

Dunbar, W.Va. -- Some industry estimates say there are up to 600,000 jobs vacant across the country, because there aren't workers with the right skill sets to fill those positions: from manufacturing to technical trades.

So this year, 26 schools across West Virginia launched a brand new program called the "simulated workplace." It's not exactly an ordinary way of learning -- but it's a method that students and teachers are confident will help prepare the workforce to fill both jobs needed right now and the jobs of the future.

It might look like a construction site, but it's actually a classroom at Ben Franklin Career and Technical Center in Dunbar. Both high school and adult students work in the space side-by-side in a "simulated workplace" to learn specific trades, like electrical work.

"Right now we're testing the voltage of the lights to make sure we're getting the correct amount," said student Isaac Stevens.

Stevens plans to become an electrician and feels this hands-on training and certification he'll earn here will get him prepared for the workforce.

"Not will I just understand how the electricity and stuff works with the book work, but you know also how to install as well from this hands-on," Stevens said.

Students in the electrical and computer aided drafting programs had to be interviewed to get their "jobs" at the company they created together in these workplaces. They clock in and out every day, take random drug tests, and even maintain a budget. And unlike a regular classroom, what students are doing in the workplaces doesn't go on a report card. It's actually calculated as the profits and losses of the businesses they're running.

"I think it's wonderful having students have ownership and a simulated ownership in a company. They understand that being here is very important, as it effects the bottom line of the company," said Julie Wiles, Computer Aided Drafting Instructor.

One of Wiles' classes is the "Precision Drafting Company." Student workers in the business are drafting blueprints for houses and creating all kinds of models using a 3D printer. The goal is to create a more realistic learning experience, so that students know what to expect in the real world, and employers can find work-ready candidates.

"I hope to work up the ladder and eventually when I come of age, have a very nice job to support me for the rest of my life," said student Cameron Myers.

Right now, just two programs are offered as "simulated workplaces" at Ben Franklin School. Next year, the concept will be expanded to include the manufacturing and automotive programs and eventually to all classes there. In the bigger picture, Governor Tomblin said he hopes the skills students gain through these simulated workplaces will help attract and retain good employers here in West Virginia.