Toyota business leaders didn’t like what they were seeing in the quality of community college and high school graduates applying for their jobs. So the company decided to partner with public schools and colleges as a way to correct that.

Dennis Parker, who helped Toyota become one of only two U.S. business organizations to gain accreditation for its educational programs, talked Friday about his company’s educational mission as part of the Donnell-Kay Foundation’s Hot Lunch speakers program.

Parker said the Toyota Advanced Manufacturing Technician Program 
- in partnership with the nonprofit Indianapolis-based Project Lead the Way, which has middle and high school programs in Colorado – is producing community college graduates with the complex set of skills they need to enter its workplace.

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The company actively recruits students enrolled at schools that are using the Project Lead the Way curriculum for its specialized program, which is part of local community college systems.

“We only visit a school that has a Project Lead the Way program,” Parker said. “We’ve got to fish in the pond that has the right fish in it.”

Once in the program at Bridgemont Community and Technical College in West Virginia, for example, students learn in a real-world manufacturing setting instead of a typical classroom. They get warnings if they are late for class, and a talking to if they lay their heads down on a desk. They get paid for their work, in addition to earning college credit.

Dennis Parker

The community college program is specifically set up to create a job-ready graduate. Parker said the company realized that U.S. schools were not producing the graduates it needed, compared to other countries. So the company decided to forge partnerships as a way to create the types of courses it believes would better prepare future American workers.

Cathy Lund, vice president and senior director of engagement for Project Lead the Way, said the organization provides its middle and high school curriculum at no cost. However, there are costs tied to required teacher training, technology agreements and equipment, such as a 3D printer.

Lund said seven of the top 10 highest-paying jobs for Generation Y involve engineering or technology. Yet the students coming out of U.S. high schools don’t have the skills they need to get on a track to land those jobs. Colorado, meanwhile, has the third-highest concentration in the nation of high-tech workers, she said.

Project Lead the Way in Colorado

Project Lead the Way’s Gateway to Technology program is in 36 middle Colorado schools. Its biomedical curriculum is offered at 13 Colorado high schools, and its engineering curriculum is offered at 39 Colorado high schools.

“The purpose of education is not solely to educate the workforce,” Lund said. “However, at Project Lead the Way, we think that’s critically important. Too few students are graduating from high school. Too few are persisting in two- and four-year programs.”

Lund said U.S. public schools are doing a good job of getting more kids to reach the right answers. But she said students aren’t learning to think critically, problem solve, work in teams or communicate well.

Project Lead the Way emphasizes three programmatic pillars – world-class curriculum, high-quality professional development and an engaged network, Lund said.

In middle schools, students participate in a nine-week block focusing on design, modeling, automation and robotics, then can choose from a range of topics, including “magic of electrons” or “science of technology.”

At the high school level, students participate in a four-year program culminating with a final project in which students work in a team to identify and solve a real-world engineering problem.

Disclosure: The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a funder of Education News Colorado.