Education and Smart Technology: The Making of a Skilled Workforce

As the saying goes, “Talk the talk or walk the walk.”

It’s an easy pitfall and I’m certainly not immune. We often talk about education, but somehow miss the boat on application. Words like curriculum, personalized learning, and assessment are tossed about while somehow forgetting to mention the practical side of education - preparing students with the necessary skills to succeed in the workforce.

It was eye opening to roll up my sleeves and speak with Richard Perko, the CEO of Lee Company. His dedication to this innovative program and the importance of vocational training became increasingly clear to me throughout our conversation. Lee Company University is a four-year nationally accredited training program investing in educating the vocational workforce. Perko emphasized that the manufacturing industry is in crisis due to a deficit of technical skill training from traditional colleges and secondary institutions. Lee Company prides itself in training their students to build complicated technical skills that prepare Lee graduates for a lifetime of meaningful employment.

Hands on technologies are promoted by Lee Company to further the careers of veteran workers while keeping their employees up-to-date in the field. The use of telepresence practices and smart glasses technologies have provided seamless communication and mentorship between office and field. The success of Lee Company University comes from the continual investment between learner, mentor, school and company. It’s a symbiotic relationship that keeps giving back and reaping it’s own benefits.

It seems no matter the field of interest; we could all benefit from the Lee Company approach.


DR. ROD BERGER: Richard, I look forward to this conversation. I think what's interesting in the education market is we often become solely focused on K-20 and very rarely do we think about the transition or the connection to workforce development and the environment that students and the citizens of our country are entering after graduation. The educational experience can be informal or formal, yet workforce preparation seems to be lacking.

I know that, at Lee Company, you have taken some significant steps at looking at the ways in which you educate your workforce.

I'd love to get your take on how you've approached it. I know there's a personal component to this when you think about Lee University and the way in which you look at developing the core members of the company.

RICHARD PERKO: Yes. We have an obvious workforce development issue in our industry, a really strong need for skilled workers that's not being supplied by our current education system.

When we started Lee Company University, the real driver there was that we were dependent heavily on our industry trade associations for that training; and they were falling woefully behind in getting us the people we needed to succeed.

I don't blame them fully. They've gotten pulled into more lobbying efforts with regulation in our industry, and the training component had fallen by the wayside.

So we decided to launch our own school, Lee Company University, which is a four-year nationally accredited training program for our skilled workers; and we wanted to have a program where whether they work for Lee Company forever or not ─ we were investing in people hoping that we could build skilled workers for our industry. And through that process, yes, hopefully, we keep most of them.

But, for me, personally, a little quick back story -

I grew up in a home where my parents didn't go to college. My father worked for manufacturers so he was able to his way up into management which you can still do back then without a college degree.

When I was going to high school, I didn't know it was ever in the mandate to go to college. So there was this time there - maybe as a GenXer where they weren't focusing everything on college prep are aware - they still want to focus everything on college prep. And so, you were still trying to decide (especially in a rural town) whether you wanted to go to college or work for a manufacturer.

That was the last opportunity for that type of choice.

When I was in high school, I took a vocational track in drafting. We had very good vocational training back then.

From that, I decided to get into drafting, went into a skilled position for a little while, and then decided I wanted to go to college and get a degree.

When I think about Lee University, I think about vocational training in our industry or the K-12 system - it's very personal to me that we continue to offer students who may not take a college track or may not yet know which track they want to take and start to recreate some new skilled positions that our industry needs.

We have a crisis in our industry, and even if we're talking about peers in the manufacturing sector, their highest need is not in college or secondary education; it's in the skilled and technical positions. We're just not creating that through our school system.

RB: Richard, what lesson can we learn when it comes to the way in which we develop an educational offering? You're nationally certified, and this is a very serious endeavor for Lee Company. You are supporting an individual's growth over a four-year period ─ and development around the skills in the trades.

What have you learned about the way in which you developed Lee University so that it would be attractive to an employee at Lee? Their interest levels might be different as skilled workers in the trades than other backgrounds of education, approaches or professions?

How have you structured Lee University in a way that attracts the incoming workforce, keeps them engaged, and also teaches them at the same time?

RP: You and I talked about our graduation programs, and the seriousness of the program we set up. From the beginning, we said, "We're going to have a nationally accredited program, the best in the industry. We're going to have a graduation ceremony that is similar to what you would have if you were going to college." We want to make it a big deal. It's a huge accomplishment. They invest thousands of hours in the process.

It's a four-year program, and they go two nights a week, so it's very similar to a college education respective of the time investment.

We pay for all the training for them, so we're investing several million dollars in the program, so first of all, from a financial standpoint; they're not accepting the burden.

Through the accreditation and the graduation, they have a skill they will have for a lifetime; and they have the opportunity to continue to grow in their field.

They have a commitment - which is huge - the time commitment, the sacrifice away from family, and those types of investments. So there's an equal responsibility for them to invest in the program.

RB: Speaking of investment, I know that Lee Company has been very forward thinking in technology, Richard. Talk a little bit about the "smart glasses." I think what's compelling about it is it seems to me (and correct me if I'm wrong) you've found a really interesting path to connect established workers and professionals with incoming professionals in a way that translates skills and experiences using technology. An example, a worker might say, "I've been a veteran of what we're doing here, and I'm able to communicate to you through technology what you're seeing and help support your development along the way."

Am I correct in hearing that? What went into the thought process of incorporating technology?

RP: I think it was the luxury of having several opportunities come together at once; one being technology and the cost of the technology getting to the point where we could utilize it, the second is the generational crisis that we're having in our industry.

If you can picture this: Google Glasses came out several years ago, and everybody in our industry or most industries were looking at how to apply that technology to their industry. Google glasses were focused on the consumer markets and that didn't work out for a number of reasons.

But it got the whole base technology for smart glasses rolling ─ and "Telepresence" and things like that. Mobile workforce (which is ours), is the ideal application. At least, that's my evaluation.

And so, we're in a situation where that technology is coming forth, and we're working with our partner and they're trying to place something and apply it to business. We got together and partnered, first of all, which was the key to this project being successful. We sat down and co-developed this for our industry.

Then, along the way, behind the scenes, I was getting 20-30 year veterans coming to me with physical setbacks. The veterans have an incredible knowledge base that we still need in our industry to work on mechanical systems, electrical systems that are very complex. But the workers were physically starting to struggle to do the job ─ climb ladders to the roof or go into basements. Some were facing knee surgery and things that go along with life and being older.

So we end up with this paradox where we have our knowledge base exiting the industry because we can't apply their knowledge to the job site.

Literally, two things came together simultaneously, and the light bulb just went off that we could figure out a way to retain that knowledge base in our company, but apply it to the job site. It's truly on-the-job training, but it's just in a different sense than it was where I came up as a technician. I had a more experienced technician typically joining and working with me, and, now, we can do that with technology.

We have a Triage Center where we have some more experienced technicians who are physically starting to slow down, with respect to the physical part, but not with respect to their knowledge base. They can telepresence projects and see everything that our younger technicians are working on in the field and help walk them through solutions.

It will be part of the future of our industry.

RB: It makes me think as to how it's transferable to education, in general. We're trying to find ways to support new teachers. There are teachers that have a lot left to give, but maybe they don't want to be in the classroom full-time anymore.

There are lots of lessons here. What's interesting about our conversation, Richard is that if I close my eyes and not think of Lee Company technically, in the conventional sense, I would almost think to myself that you are bordering on an education company.

Have you ever thought about that? All the things that we're talking about - it's amazing the focus that you're taking in the education of the workforce.

The result - it sounds like you should have a happy workforce that is doing good work and continuing to grow.

Even though most people know Lee Company locally or regionally as one thing, have you ever contemplated the ways you might be morphing into an education company?

RP: That's an interesting concept. I don't know if I've ever thought about it in those terms. I would say the "people" part of my mission statement is to create a place where our employees can thrive.

Years ago when we put it together, the first focus was on safety. If you can't create an environment where employees go home safely every day, then they can't thrive.

The second part was education and continuous improvement.

Our goal, aside from all the mechanical, electrical and job-specific aspects of what our employees do, is to create a place where they can grow and prosper in their lives - not just in their work.

A big component in life is education.

It's interesting that a lot of our employees who started to work here, again, didn't take a college track. They weren't specifically education-focused when they got into the workforce, but now they really understand the value of learning these skills and taking advantage of the education we offer.

RB: I have to tell you, it is quite powerful, Richard. We talked off air that I was lucky enough to be in attendance at the most recent graduation in 2016, and to see some of your employees walking across that stage not just for one certificate, degree or accomplishment but multiple. Watching the graduates sitting there with their families and seeing the pride and joy in the accomplishment and the investment. Not only were they proud of their own personal development and professional development, but also what Lee Company was doing.

RP: Yes. When we started the program, I had lots of naysayers. Even peers would tell me, "You can't make it successful because you can't find the voluntary instructors who are workers who volunteer their time two nights a week for four years and, also, the students wouldn't come. They wouldn't work all day, and then go to school at night."

We've proven them wrong. We have 280 employees in this program, and they're doing that very thing.

It shows you that education is valuable to these employees - if they're given a good program and the opportunity to take advantage of it.

RB: Opportunity is very powerful. Thank you, again, Richard.

RP: Thank you.

RB: Once again, I'm Dr. Rod Berger.

About Richard C. Perko, President & CEO

Upon earning his degree in 1996, Mr. Perko was hired by Lee Company as a project engineer where he engineered, developed and sold mechanical and plumbing systems for healthcare, industrial, commercial, and institutional facilities. Working alongside Lee Company’s Construction teams, Mr. Perko became heavily involved in Construction Management and moved into Construction as a Project Manager where he was promoted to Vice President of Construction in 2001.

In 2004, Mr. Perko was given additional companywide responsibilities and was promoted to Executive Vice President. In 2009, Mr. Perko was promoted to President and is now responsible for all company sales, operations and strategic planning for its business units. His current focus is on broadening Lee Company breadth of services and offerings and completing the company’s transition from a traditional mechanical contractor and residential HVAC provider to a comprehensive Facilities Solutions and Home Services provider.

Follow Richard Perko on Twitter

Further Reading:

Additional Reading:

Should we bring back vocational training to schools?

The importance of adult learning to the economy

The impact of Dyslexia education on teaching practices in schools

About Rod Berger, PsyD.

Dr. Rod Berger is President and CEO of MindRocket Media Group. Berger is a global education media personality and strategic influencer featured in The Huffington Post, Scholastic, AmericanEdTV, edCircuit, EdTechReview India and Forbes

Audiences have enjoyed education interviews with the likes of Sir Ken Robinson, Arne Duncan, Randi Weingarten, Sal Khan along with leading edtech investors, award-winning educators, and state and federal education leaders. Berger’s latest project boasts a collaboration with AmericanEdTV and CBS’s Jack Ford.

Follow Dr. Rod Berger on Twitter

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