That was the question that came to mind for Clark Coco, dean, Washburn University Institute of Technology in Topeka, Kansas, who saw an opportunity to get kids interested in the skilled trades through an avenue that had previously not been considered. Now, National Technical Letter of Intent Signing Day is a successful event that has been held each of the last four years, helping thousands of students achieve their moments of glory at more than 40 schools as they prepare for rewarding careers in the skilled trades.
“The idea for this program goes back to when I was much younger and was coaching college basketball,” said Coco. “We would sign athletes to letters of intent, and I knew this was an idea that could be applied to technical schools and the skilled trades. We were initially going to do it on the same day as football’s signing day, but I didn’t do that because two TV stations here in Topeka, Kansas, would be covering football, limiting the coverage we could get. We drew up a sample letter and loved it. Word of the event naturally spread.”
“This was an idea about how to engage directly with young people and bring them into great career fields,” said Roger Tadajewski, executive director, National Coalition of Certification Centers (NC3), per a release. “I firmly believe we are at the cusp, at the very beginning, of a new technology piece.”
During the first year of the event, Washburn Tech had 512 students participate. That number has grown exponentially in the years since with dozens of schools coming on board, including Gateway Technical College in Racine, Wisconsin.
“Our college president, Dr. Bryan Albrecht, brought the idea to me three years ago,” said Jane Finkenbine, director, college connection, Gateway Technical College. “[Our involvement] came about through our partnership with NC3 and the event photos from Washburn Tech. We now host a Signing Day event, on the same day as the national event with NC3. Our three-county service area includes 33 high schools. Seniors who have completed their Gateway application and placement testing are invited to attend.”
Finkenbine also said that in addition to getting bigger, the event itself has gotten much better since it started.
“I was not sure what to expect the first year, but it has become one of those ‘goose bump’ moments,” she said. “The students and their families are so proud of the commitment they are making to higher education. They smile and pose for photos. It’s amazing to see our future Red Hawks receive this recognition for their commitment to their futures.”
Coco said, prior to the first signing day, he had been at Washburn Tech for one year.
“When I got here, we were referred to as a tired and outdated facility,” he said. “We didn’t wear uniforms, we weren’t associated with NC3, there were weeds in the sidewalks, etc. Luckily, people really bought into what we were doing. The school has seen 45 percent growth in enrollment over the last five years.”
Omar Hernandez, a student who took part in the first signing day at Washburn Tech, said, “By signing a letter of intent I felt like I was a part of the Washburn Tech community.”
It’s a sentiment that has been shared by many students who have taken part in the proceedings, and Coco said that is no accident.
“I’m a pretty simple guy, and I truly believe that every student who walks into a technical education classroom knows what they are getting into and where they want to go.”
Gateway Technical College was one of three schools that joined the program in its second year. In year three, 14 more schools got involved, and last year, that number rose to around 40 schools in total.
Signing Day’s rise in popularity has actually forced Gateway to relocate the event to a larger facility.
“We had to move locations, because we outgrew the first,” said Finkenbine. “The first year, we had 62 students, and by the second year, we had about 125. This past February, we had 405 register. Not all could leave school to attend, but we had a full house. What was great about this year is that many of our high school partners, including many principals, counselors, and teachers, came to the event on buses with their students. I think it was so impactful to have the students supported by the high school staff as well as our college team.”
Finkenbine added that the kids themselves truly commit to the proceedings.
“Oh my goodness…. They take this so seriously,” she said. “They sign the letters in small groups on the stage. Then, they put on their Red Hawk hats, which includes a design used only for this event. They pose for photos, and as they leave the stage, they shake hands with our program deans and faculty and take more photos. We try to make it fun, but they take the signing seriously.”
Those signings are now taking place all across the country. Events have been held at schools in Arizona, Kansas, North Carolina, Oregon, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Florida, Alabama, Minnesota, and Oklahoma. Coco believes the signing day boom will likely continue as long as there are students willing to make a commitment.
“This is about putting the workforce to work,” he said. “We [at Washburn Tech] have a banner that we took from Snap-On that says ‘celebrating the dignity of work.’ On a national basis, we want people to celebrate the dignity of work and signing a letter of intent, with media coverage, which we feel is pretty cool. On a smaller basis, moving forward, we will continue to work with one student at a time.”
For more information on Washburn Tech’s National Technical Letter of Intent Signing Day, visit http://bit.ly/WashburnSigningDay
Publication date: 6/19/2017