Teaching by Example

David Fitzgeralds, instructor at the HCC welding and technology center in Hillsboro, says he is training students to take pride in the quality of their work and the level of productivity. In this photo, members of the class are assembling the roof frame onto a bus stop shelter the class is producing for the Reno County Area Transit. Don Ratzlaff Photo

The 14 students enrolled this semester in the Hutch­inson Community College Welding and Technology center in Hillsboro are learning skills that can last them a lifetime.

But make no mistake, welding and metal work is only part of the learning curve required from their instructor, David Fitz­geralds, the welding coordinator and instructor for HCC and the Reno County Indus­trial Center.

The Herington native said he expects his students to be dependable employees who take pride in excellence and work hard for their employers.

Most students that come for his classes are high school age. The class follows the USD 410 school calendar, but students come from around the area. This semester’s roster includes students from Hillsboro, Marion, Centre and even one from his hometown alma mater.

Learning to be a productive employee is just as important, if not more so, then laying a straight bead with an arc welder.

The local welding center developed with the significant involvement of local trailer manufacturing companies.

“Coming from a small town, I do kind of enjoy coming over here,” Fitzgeralds said. “I’m one of these guys who likes a challenge and tries to build things.

“I know there’s a push by the local trailer guys, but they’re not going to hire 15 people at a time,” he added. “Some of (his students) can go on and become the next best engineer, the next best whatever. Most of it is teaching people how to be responsible.”

Industrial roots

“My goal was to never forget where I came from, and never forget industry and keep to those roots,” Fitz­geralds said. “If I’m going to produce future labor, what does industry want?”

His list of expectations were acquired from the days following his graduation from Hering­ton High School, when he took an entry-level job in a small local welding shop.

Fitzgeralds went on to create a business of his own, McPherson Fabrication, that was growing at 500 percent per year before he finally sold it.

Along the way he created a vehicle lift that can be used in a home garage.

“That was my five minutes of fame,” he joked. “I sold it to a company in Council Grove, and they’re still going. You can’t really open up any magazine or TV show without seeing a copy or the real deal.”

Teaching the basics

So what lesson does Fitz­geralds want to instill in his students?

“First, get up and show up—that’s No.1,” he said. “Then, be accountable when you’re there. And no matter how bad a job you have, the one thing nobody can take away from you is the pride in what you do.”

More important than earning a passing grade, Fitz­geralds said he’s looking out for his students’ future.

“When we actually get on a project and they start saying, ‘That’s not good enough,’ that’s when it becomes cool,” he said. “These students all of a sudden come out of their shell and say, ‘Hey, I can do this.’”

Dusten Plenert of Hillsboro High School hones his welding skills in one of several dedicated work stations
Fitzgeralds said manufacturing companies can’t afford a new employee who comes in at “granny low speeds.”

“A business that’s been in it for a long time is in overdrive,” he said. “To hit that pace, especially in manufacturing, is a shock. I take a lot of pride in having these guys hit the ground running.

“But the reality of it also is if you don’t show up (for classes), I won’t refer you (to a future employer). I will not do that to my industry friends. There’s a trust there.

“When I tell somebody in industry you need to hire this guy, there’s a reason. He’s the cream of the crop. But if you don’t want to apply yourself and you don’t want to show up for class—it goes both ways.”

Pride in projects

Recently, Fitzgeralds landed a unique class project: building bus stops for Reno County Area Transit. The stops are steel-framed with glass roofing and side panels that riders from the weather as they wait for their ride.

“Students get involved in everything from building materials, to scheduling who’s doing what, what tasks are going to be done and when it will be done,” he said.

James Spohn from Centre High School smooths the welds with a grinder on the bus stop prototype that has become the class project.
If the final product doesn’t reflect the instructor’s expectation, it doesn’t leave the building.

“You’ve got to tell me up front that you’re willing to do it, ” he said. “If not, we’ll get somebody else. If you’re going to be involved in this, then show me.”

For this project, his students can work toward a reward beyond their instructor’s praise.

“With a lot of (welding) program it’s just free labor,” Fitzgeralds said. “I want these guys to learn—first, everything involved in manufacturing. If they can accomplish that task, and I can make a few hundred dollars on this (project), I’m going to give it back to them in gift certificates.”

Jeremy Hett (left) and Ryan Cochran of Marion High School practice their grinding skills on a flat metal plate.
It’s all about taking pride in their work and being rewarded for it.

“Anybody can do cheap, and anybody can do slop,” he said. “But when you can make something functional, and it works better than anything else out there, you can take pride in it.

“Business is the same way,” he added. “You’re either an asset or a liability in this world. These students, when they go to work, are they an asset for somebody, or are they just a drain on that business?

“Having these guys be aware of that, then they’re understanding the bigger picture.”

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