Are You Willing to Get Your Hands Dirty?

Article written by Ron Coppess
(printed in Scene Magazine, Spring - 2014)

In the 60s

The year was 1965 and I was in eighth grade.  My sister was dating a guy named Bill who did not like school but was very talented mechanically.  When graduation came, he barely made it across the stage.  Bill, like his father, went to work in the shop at Oldsmobile after he graduated.  He moved up quickly from assembly to jigs and fixture repair and finally to a level-5 engineer.  After 35 years, Bill was the “go-to” guy to build $80,000,000 engine plants wherever GMC wanted them built.

Now, here in 2014 our schools have many boys and girls walking the halls with great aspirations of greatness — but nowhere to go.  You see, opportunity does not exist anymore in our schools for a kid like Bill. Bill learned his trade, not in the English class, but rather in his high school’s shop class.  Nowadays, Bill would be a high risk for dropping out.  Schools are being over taken by standards, benchmarks and whatever the new buzz word in education is these days.  Through this, we are starting to see what happens when you cut all of those programs that gave kids like Bill a place to be.  Where have the hands-on programs in school gone?  Thousands of young men and women would blossom in the world if their education was more than just an information overload.


We live in an age where the thought is that you must receive a college education or you will not be successful.  The number of college graduates that graduate with $100,000 of debt and cannot find employment is staggering.  The television show “60 minutes” even made a special report on the massive debt required for a degree and no jobs to show for it.  This being said, you will not hear me say that students don’t need post-secondary education or training.  I’m from the great state of Michigan.  I believe we have one of the best work forces in the nation; but if you look at the work force closely, you will see a lot of retraining happening by the companies before they can put their people to work.  In the past 40 years, I have watched the schools cut funding on programs and cut programs all together in order to be able to comply with state standards and bench marks.  They have cut a lot of the programs that have kept hands-on learners in school and focused.  They have taken away their motivation to learn.  Would you care to look at the dropout rate in your state?  Can you put your finger on the reason?  High School curriculum is not relevant for many students anymore.

When you look at the big picture, how many occupations really need a bachelor’s degree? What percentage of our students do we push for that bachelor’s degree?  How many do we push for an associate’s degree?  Seventy percent should be looking at a two-year degree.  There is always the option to get the other two years after you have employment; and you never know, the company you work for may just pay for it.

It’s Broken

My mentality has always been “don’t tell me it is broken unless you are willing to tell me how to fix it.”  I believe the real answer to this issue is to fix the family and then education will follow; but maybe that ship has sailed.  I hit the lotto when I was born.  I got great parents that took care of all of my needs.  They clothed me and gave me a great home.  My mom was a great cook and I never worried about my safety.  One of the most important things my parents gave me was their time.  My dad would take me out to work on the farm; he taught me work could be hard, fun, and very satisfying.  He also taught me that getting my hands dirty on a project was OK.

“The Horse is out of the Barn”

Ron Coppess

At this point, we have a nation where the jobs have gone south or overseas and may never return.  A wake up call has been heard by industry and they know the quality of their products must improve to stay in business.  As educators, it’s our job to deliver the work force who have the skills necessary to be able to step in and do the job; or at least to be in a place where they are ready to be trained for those positions.  There are high-tech jobs everywhere and no one to fill them.  We need to educate our young people so they can get those open jobs.  When you take the hands-on programs out of our schools, you’re banking on all students being able to learn with one learning style.  Without these hands-on programs we will miss some of our brightest students.

The rule used to be that a two-year associate’s degree would out-earn a four-year degree for the first 16 years.  One would think that during those 16 years, if someone wanted to get a four year degree, they could; and many companies have programs to help fund it.  There is a mindset out there in higher education that says a two-year junior college degree is subpar, inferior and should not be promoted or talked about in school.  Even our society has declared war on work and dirty jobs.  Hollywood uses the hard working person’s job as a punch line for jokes and the Madison Avenue message is “stop working so hard and punch out early.”  They promote get rich quick and no solid work ethic.  I remember when I was the department head for Industrial Technology at my school.  One year I asked some faculty members if our students that had received an apprenticeship in tool design, plumbing, electrical, and several other fields could be introduced and acknowledged at Senior’s Honors Night.  I was told however, that the program was for students with academic achievement only.  To the credit of our principal, he agreed with me and all of those students were honored.

If we want to get back to being a leader in the world in technology, manufacturing, and producing products it must begin with the preparation of our students.  I had a guest speaker in my class once and he told my students that if they are willing to get their hands dirty they stand to make a lot of money.

Ron Coppess taught high school drafting and design and industrial arts for 23 years, and later served as assistant principal.  He is currently the President of Sunny Crest Youth Ranch, a working ranch that positively influences the social, emotional, physical and spiritual development of young men and their communities.

Building Relationships is Key

When I started out in life I had a tremendous mentor, my father. He modeled work and how to work. He also modeled play, how to play and have fun. We had a great relationship but it did not last long enough. My father died when I was 26.

Point being, you never know how long a relationship will last. When you find a good one you need to take care of it. You may or may not have some control over it. At times, when a relationship ends, you're cautious to build a new one because there can be pain if that relationship goes south. That's the way it was when my first girlfriend broke up with me when I was in sixth grade. Years later my best friend quit sports and started a rock and roll band while I went on to play college sports. Over time we each lost interest in what the other was doing. I learned at that time that relationship takes effort from both sides.

Relationships take time; they are based on trust and you must be willing to go slow. For some people that is very easy, for others it is very difficult. It can be a tedious process. Previous experiences have a lot to do with how relationships are built and how fast they blossom. Some relationships can happen quickly and last a lifetime while others take a lifetime to build.

We have many Ranchers who have had trouble building relationships because it was never modeled for them. Parents are the number one source for children to learn to build relationships. When children don't bond with their parents it often puts them behind the eight ball for much of their adolescent lives. Children watch parents like hawks; they never miss what their parents are doing. They are also on the receiving end of what the parents do to bond relationships.

If you are able to build relationships, then you need to thank that person who bonded with you when you were small.