“We believe that skilled trades teachers are heroes who don’t often get the recognition that they deserve,” says Tae Kang, Program Manager of Harbor Freight Tools for Schools — a philanthropic initiative that honors the nation’s most innovative among them. “This program shines a light on their work and their character, not just in their school buildings, but also in their communities.”
In 2014, Harbor Freight Tools founder and CEO Eric Smidt kicked off the Tools for Schools project by donating $1.4 million in tools and equipment to the Los Angeles Unified School District. In 2017, that project transformed into an annual recognition of public high school teaching excellence in such categories as automotive technology, mechanical engineering, and industrial technology.
“School budgets for skilled trades education have often been cut, especially in our college-for-all mindset,” Kang adds. “We want to support those programs so that students have the tools that they need, and they’re using them in a safe environment.”
And for four years, they’ve done just that. And we at Skild have been fortunate to go along for the ride, powering their efforts through a comprehensive program designed to surface the best and the brightest.
So, who’s participating and how are they being judged? The application process is rigorous, and skilled trades teachers must be able to communicate their programs and their backgrounds in teaching — specifically, what they do for their students in the classroom and beyond. The initial field of applicants is narrowed down to 50 top candidates, who then complete another round of questions. From there, 18 finalists are chosen and 3 grand-prize winners are determined.
But by whom? All of the participating judges are experts in career and technical education. Some are former prize winners themselves. Others work in the non-profit sector, industry, or educational administration. In other words, the judges are intentionally selected from a variety of backgrounds, which enables the applications to be evaluated and scored mindfully and from a diversity of perspectives.
Who were the 3 grand-prize winners for 2020’s Prize for Teaching Excellence, each of whom received $100,000, with $70,000 going to their program and $30,000 going into their pocket?!
Brian Manley: Automotive Technology, Cherry Creek Innovation Campus, Colorado. His program was one of the first two certified through the Automotive Youth Educational Systems in 1998. Early on, Manley championed his students’ involvement in SkillsUSA, a national nonprofit organization that supports career and technical education students, preparing them and traveling with them to regional-, state-, and national-level contests. His students also compete in the Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills contest — a national competition in which students race against the clock, and their rivals, to diagnose and repair vehicles — and have taken home tens of thousands of dollars in scholarship winnings.
Mike Shallenberger: Engineering - STEM School Highlands Ranch, Colorado. Shallenberger fosters connectivity between his students and industry with Career Discovery, a program he designed in partnership with local industry experts to keep his curriculum current, offer tours, and facilitate paid internship opportunities that students can pursue year-round while earning class credit. His students have the chance to earn their associate degree, tuition-free, while still in high school, or transfer credits for a bachelor’s degree. Students also leave prepared to earn industry certifications in robotics, programming, mechatronics, and mechanical design.
Kathryn Worley: Industrial Technology West Hills High School, California. Students in her classroom design products, build furniture, and manufacture machined parts, gaining skills in six types of design software and in such trades as welding, computer numerical control, and machining. With deep relationships to industry, they make connections to employers like Taylor Guitars, LifeProof, the carpenters union, and drone manufacturers. They also compete in Shark Tank-inspired design competitions, judged by engineers, in which the students design, manufacture, and market unique products to industry and community professionals.
In addition to Manley, Shallenberger, and Worley, the remaining 15 prize winners across the country each received $50,000 — with $35,000 going to the winning skilled trades program and $15,000 to the teacher. Because of school, district, and/or state policy regarding individual cash awards, the schools of two of the winners received the entire prize winnings.
With a deep respect for the dignity of these fields and for the intelligence and creativity of people who work with their hands, Harbor Freight Tools for Schools will continue to drive a greater understanding of and investment in skilled trades education, believing that access to quality skilled trades education gives high school students pathways to graduation, opportunity, good jobs, and a workforce our country needs.