John S. Gaal, Director of Training and Workforce Development, Carpenters’ District Council of Greater Saint Louis and Vicinity, took time out from his busy schedule at the World TVET Conference 2015 to sit down with SarawakYES! and discuss his passion for technical vocational education and training.
Q: Could you introduce yourself and your background?
A: My name is Dr. John Gaal, I am the Director of Training and Workforce Development for the Carpenters’ District Council of Greater Saint Louis and Vicinity. So in essence it’s the St Louis carpenters union. I oversee all training and education for our 22,000 members. Our geographic area spans the state of Kansas, the entire state of Missouri and about the southern third of Illinois. I oversee the apprenticeship and journey-level upgrade training programs. We have nine schools, two of them are in Kansas, six of them are in Missouri and one of them is in Illinois. Our programs cover carpentry, cabinet making, floor laying and millwright work.
Q: What are some of the questions a person should ask before considering a vocational career?
A: I believe that both students and parents have to be engaged in this process. Far too often parents have pre-conceived notions of what TVET is based on their experiences 20 or 30 years ago. And the world has changed so much since then, especially with regards to career and technical education, apprenticeships and other types of non-traditional learning. More often than not the students are so young that they follow the lead of their parents and are often disappointed because they aren’t armed with enough information to make decisions on their behalf. So they often live in the footsteps of their parents and unfortunately that isn’t very good from a relative standpoint because their parents are 20 or 30 years older than them.
So in essence it should be a team decision and it should be between the parents and the child and, of course, if they have an educator who’s been a mentor, that individual should also have some input into the process because education – whether its academic education or technical education – is so vital to the future of these children and their success down the road.
Q: Can you list some of the career options for people with TVET qualifications coming through your system?
A: The opportunities are endless. A lot of people think when they hear carpenter, immediately they think about someone pounding nails into wood. We have a lot of carpenters that never touch wood. They work all with metal. They’re building buildings out of metal, and of course you don’t nail metal, you weld it, so we have to have people who can weld. And a lot of times we get people from other sectors of the economy … maybe they were in agriculture, and if you’re a farmer you have to know how to weld, you have to fix your own equipment. So we attract a lot of rural students into our program, and a lot of our work is done in the manufacturing industry as well because we have specialty categories such as cabinetmakers and they work in factory-type shops. We have millwrights, who sometimes fabricate machinery bases in a shop and then go out into a plant and they set the machinery base and maybe even the machines themselves.
So we draw from a lot of different categories, and as we move into the 21st century, deeper into it, we’re seeing a lot of blurring of lines because in the past we had situations where only an electrician worked on electronics, and we had other types of mechanics who worked on the hydraulics and the pneumatics, but now we’ve come up with in TVET this category called mechatronics – and these people are like the new Renaissance man, they have to know how to program computers, they have to know possibly how to run a 3D printer, they may have to actually set up the machine, they may have to do the change over from one part to another part on the same machine, they may have to switch between machining something in wood to something in plexiglass and then an hour later something in aluminium. This is a mixture of a lot of different talents now.
I think too often we have these very rigid programs. When I was 18 years old I didn’t know what I wanted to be. And we’re asking kids, children, to make those tough decisions. And then you wonder why only 30 percent of the people who go to college graduate in the United States. That’s a tough decision at 18 years old. So we’ve got programs out there now that are giving our children viable options. With eight college degrees, and two post-docs and an apprenticeship on my resume, I’ll be the first to say that college is for everyone at some point in their life, but it’s not for everyone at 18 years old. I think that puts a lot of pressure on our kids and I think there are better ways to go about this and, personally, I think it’s the apprenticeship programs because it combines learning with hands on work.
Q: What does the future hold for TVET?
A: I believe that events like this that you are hosting here in Malaysia are vital for TVET from an international perspective because we come here and learn from each other. And we’re able to take those bits and pieces of those learnings and experiment with them back in our home locations. I do believe a lot of minds are open at events like this.
For a wonderful country likes yours, to make the investment that your government officials made over the last year in preparation for these three days, that’s starting at the top. That’s showing commitment. When we know the leaders are committed it helps bring people from the bottom up.
Q: What advice would you give to a young person about pursuing a career in TVET?
A: As a student, you have to experiment with what’s available. I think to come in with a preconceived notion that you have to just take the sciences or just take the maths, I think you’re doing yourself a disservice. There’s some really neat stuff going on in today’s world where these things are converging with the arts. In the United States we have what we call STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, STEM education, STEM occupations. There’s a movement now to change that word from STEM to STEAM and put an A in there for Arts. You have to be creative to be an artist, you have to be innovative to be a scientist, so we’re going to converge those things and it’s almost going to be a back-to-the-future type issue.
So don’t pigeon hole yourself just in music and not try your hand at the math, don’t pigeon yourself in biology and not try your hand at carpentry. Because somewhere along the line there may be something that you learn between the two and one day your looking at a program on the TV… and you will say ‘what if I did this and this, maybe I could join those concepts together’.
So as a young student I think they need to do a lot of career exploration, and it’s a disservice to our children if the guidance counsellors are not engaging those students in those exercises. Children today are very active learners … they want to engage. They’re not passive learners anymore.
My plea to the students, open your minds and try things. And with the teachers, open your minds and go out and learn what’s really going on in the real world with your area of expertise. And I think with parents we have to reach out to them as well and say open your minds as well because today’s TVET isn’t your grandpas vocational education.