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They both worked in industry and weren’t getting any quality employees. So, what else could they do? They became teachers, SkillsUSA advisors, and husband and wife.

Tired of getting employees without the proper skills, training and work ethic, Ken and Denise Baer took matters into their own hands … at the same time, in the same way and long before the couple ever met.

The Baers are now SkillsUSA advisors at Montachusett Regional Vocational-Technical High School (“Monty Tech”) in Fitchburg, Mass. Ken teaches automotive service and Denise teaches cosmetology. Their desire for better workers brought them together.
“When I worked in industry, a lot of young kids we were hiring weren’t as prepared as they should have been,” recalls Ken, a former head master technician who worked for both Firestone and Goodyear.

He had his own feelings of being ripped off as an automotive student, that he should have been given more. Instead, he’d had to rely on his own motivation and the encouragement of Teddy Morin, his automotive instructor at Worcester (Mass.) Vocational-Technical High School. (A role model, Morin urged him to get involved in SkillsUSA competitions. Ken made it to nationals in 1988 and finished eighth in the postsecondary Automotive Service Technology competition.)

So, Ken decided to leave industry and go into education. The son of a teacher, he liked the lifestyle but, more importantly, wanted to make a difference in the future workforce. He started taking certification classes at Fitchburg State College.

“I thought, ‘Oh, I can do this, I love what I do, I love working on cars,’ ” Ken remembers. “I don’t want to say the staff at my school was bad, it’s just that the system didn’t work. I wanted to change that. And, the school I’m at now is unbelievable.”

Denise was on a parallel path. She graduated from Leominster (Mass.) High School in 1983 and Henri’s School of Hair Design, in Fitchburg, in 1985. Within a year, the 19-year-old became a salon manager. During her 10 years at the salon, she noticed that the skill level of new employees was declining. She started teaching at Henri’s.

Meanwhile, according to Denise, Monty Tech was suffering from a 22-percent dropout rate and its federal funding was in jeopardy. Administrators wanted to create an industry-style school with high accountability. With instructor training, curriculum change and remodeling, the school’s dropout rate was reduced to 8 percent in one year.

In 1995, Denise was given the opportunity to get in at the ground level of change at Monty Tech.

“They were looking for people who had worked in industry,” she explains. “I thought this was exciting. I thought I’d rather teach them and have them come to me better prepared, and maybe on the front end I can be more effective, instead of getting them at the end.

“The standards were falling through the cracks. They didn’t have teachers with enough experience to share with the students. They took a chance on me. I substituted for three years.”

“SkillsUSA is curricular. I’ll drop football [coaching] before I drop this. It should be about the students, not about the money. It’s about progressing and getting kids better prepared for the trades.” — Ken Baer, advisor

Denise started the cosmetology program and the school salon, developed the curriculum and got industry people involved as supporters. She started taking certification classes at Fitchburg State, where she met Ken. Needless to say, they discovered they had a lot in common and started dating in 1995. They were married in 1999.

Since then, both she and her husband have helped with state assessment and certification programs, as well as in writing the tests for state certificates of occupational proficiency in cosmetology and automotive service technology.

Along the way, they also discovered that SkillsUSA was a good fit for ensuring curriculum was meeting industry standards. Denise attended a Massachusetts fall leadership conference and was inspired.

Now, Monty Tech has had 100 percent membership for the past 10 years — no small feat for a school with 1,300 students. However, it hasn’t been easy.

Going to bat for their kids

“The first year we went to states, we earned one gold medal and six others,” Denise says. “The following year, 22 students earned state medals. And we said, ‘We can’t do this anymore.’ There were too many fund-raisers: fund-raisers for districts, fund-raisers for states. We were raising $13,000 to $15,000 within six weeks — every six weeks.

“I dealt with a lot of money in cosmetology, and at that time there were problems in Massachusetts regarding accountability and money. I just didn’t want my hands on that amount of money.”

So at the end of that school year, when they’d had such success, the Baers went to their new superintendent and the school committee members. Together they insisted, “If you want us to do SkillsUSA, you are going to have to pay for it.”

“I am the football coach,” Ken explained to them, “and you shell out all kinds of money for football, and it’s extracurricular. SkillsUSA is curricular. I’ll drop football before I drop this. It should be about the students, not about the money. It’s about progressing and getting kids better prepared for the trades.”

That said, the school board has funded SkillsUSA ever since.

Monty Tech serves low-income students, and the Baers both strongly believe in getting them prepared for the workforce — so much so that they instantly speak in unison when the topic turns to helping students succeed.

“A young kid coming out of a situation like that,” Denise begins, “is confused, has no leadership at home …”

Ken joins her, “No caring at home, nobody behind them. We’ve paid for college, we’ve paid for cars, we’ve paid for teeth to be fixed, we’ve bought glasses.”

“We believe it’s an investment in them,” Denise explains. “If they’ve given up the time being a local officer — and it’s heavy-duty responsibility at our school — if they’ve shown the leadership and followed through on everything as a local and state officer, we guarantee we will pay for their books for college.

“One kid didn’t have a car to get to college, so we bought the car and paid for the books. He’s been very successful. We help out the kids who earn it.”

Ken adds, “We support them as long as they do something. We tell them, ‘Don’t leave here and not use what you’ve just spent four years learning.’ ”

“The deal is, though,” Denise cautions, “they have to come back and be involved in SkillsUSA.”

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SkillsUSA Champions | Summer 2007 | Volume 41, No. 4
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