The growing education initiative needs $150,000 more in industry donations this year to continue thriving—and that worries the program’s director

WoodLINKS-USA pressed for cash: the growing education initiative needs $150,000 more in industry donations this year to continue thriving—and that worries the program’s director

Laurel Jorgensen

Wilf Torunski, the national program director of WoodLINKS-USA, knows how to stretch a budget, but it’s not something he’s fond of doing.

“I think everyone’s surprised at how much we’ve been able to achieve with the amount of money we spend,” he says. “Last year we spent $200,000 nationally. I think most people [seeing what we have accomplished] will say, ‘How did you do it?'”

Torunski has been counting the program’s pennies since its first complete school year in the United States three years ago. Although WoodLINKS-USA initially received funding from the USDA Forest Service, those donations were cut off on Aug. 1, 2003. Torunski expected to receive $76,000 from the USDA this year, and the loss of that cash flow has left. the program scrambling for funding.

“We are now totally reliant on industry donations to keep us going,” Torunski says. “And that’s frightening.”

He says the program’s national fund now needs about $300,000 annually to keep it running–$200,000 for “bare bone” expenses such as administrative costs, travel, promotion and teacher in-services and $100,000 for curriculum development.

After factoring in industry donations and licensing fees paid by WoodLINKS-USA schools, the program’s 2004 national fund is still about $150,000 short.

AWFS, WMIA Step Up

Torunski describes WoodLINKS-USA as “an industry-supported human resources development program designed to make our industry more competitive.” Graduates are certified for careers in the wood products industry, and they represent “the best and brightest skilled entry-level work force,” Torunski says.

To receive WoodLINKS-USA certification, students must pass both a teacher evaluation based on industry standards and a multiple-choice exam. Torunski estimates that by September, 52 schools nationally will be running either full-fledged or pilot WoodLINKS-USA programs. With plans to regionalize the curriculum and establish a master’s degree program for WoodLINKS-USA teachers, the costs continue to add up.

While several industry groups now support WoodLINKS-USA, two in particular have been especially strong hackers of the program from its inception–the Association of Woodworking & Furnishings Suppliers (AWFS) and the Wood Machinery Industry Assn. (WMIA).

“[WoodLINKS-USA] has been the catalyst to start everyone thinking about the idea that we have to attract kids to our industry,” says Dale Silverman, executive director of the AWFS. “To me, it’s so much greater than that. It’s gotten the whole industry thinking a different way than we were 10 years ago.”

AWFS has increased its funding every year, Torunski says. Since January, the association has contributed $25,500 to the national fund, donated $12,000 for a teacher in-service, and awarded $14,000 in scholarships to WoodLINKS-USA graduates.

“We feel it’s really important [to donate] so they don’t have to be out there fundraising,” Silverman says. “It takes away from doing what they have to be doing.”

During the Spring 2004 Woodworking industry Conference in Tucson, AZ, WoodLINKS-USA received another large chunk of change. The WMIA announced its $50,000 donation to the program’s operating fund–an amount that doubled its previous contribution.

“We believe that WoodLINKS benefits all companies in the woodworking industry, not just WMIA members,” says Richard Hannigan, chairman of WMIA’s education committee and the vice president of sales for Holz-Her. “There are other associations of not only suppliers but [also] manufacturers that derive direct benefits [from] WoodLINKS and we believe that those people should recognize that and provide financial assistance as well.”

Torunski says he was “humbled” by the WMIA’s donation.

“We knew they [the WMIA] were committed, but they really stepped forward,” WoodLINKS-USA President Keith Malmstadt says. “They basically challenged everyone else to step up to the table to make it happen.”

Merritt Woodworks in Mentor, OH, contributed the largest donation by a single company last year–$10,000.

“I wish every industry leader were like Keith and Michael Merritt,” Torunski says.

Significant donations to the program’s national fund also have come from IWF; Architectural Woodwork Institute nationally and its chapters in North Carolina, Wisconsin and Northeast Ohio; the National Assn. of Store Fixture Manufacturers; Tradeshows Inc.; the Wood Component Manufacturers Assn. and KraftMaid Cabinetry, among others.

Every Bit Counts

Donations come in all sizes–and all are appreciated, Torunski says.

A line on the registration form for the International Woodworking Machinery & Furniture Supply Fair invites participants to check a small box to donate $10 to WoodLINKS-USA.

The box has appeared on the IWF form in the past and is also a part of the AWFS Fair registration form. WoodLINKS-USA has pulled in anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000 this way, Torunski says.

Some smaller companies may be hesitant to donate because of their own lack of funds, Torunski says, but even $100 donations can make a difference to the program.

And while contributions to the national fund are important to keep the program rolling, Torunski stresses that non-monetary donations by individual companies to their local WoodLINKS-USA schools are equally as important if not more. The industry has to take an active roll in the program at the local level in order for it to be successful, he says.

In some cases, that means taking a leadership role and initiating WoodLINKS programs in local schools. “The schools are not going to step forward and initiate the program [themselves] because it’s a high-cost program,” Malmstadt says.

As funding for education decreases nationally, schools are focusing on college preparatory courses and curling back–or completely cutting out–their woodworking programs. And without the industry pushing for graduates with woodworking skills, finding competent employees will continue to become more difficult.

“[Schools] have says that industry hasn’t been participating,” says Malmstadt, also the CEO of Great Lake Woods in Holland, MI. “We’re going to step forward and help.”

Those interested in participating in WoodLINKS-USA can help out in a variety of ways, he says. Companies can help pay for a local chapter’s $5,000 licensing fee or contribute to the program’s day-to-day operation by donating equipment the students need–whether it’s machinery, wood or even sandpaper.

One of the most recent schools to receive an industry sponsor is Southeast High School in Ravenna, OH. At the end of May, KraftMaid Cabinetry plunked down $5,000 to covet’ the school’s WoodLINKS-USA licensing fee.

Woodworking manufacturers or other industry-related companies also can open up their facilities to classes or send employees to visit students themselves and discuss industry jobs.

“Not all people participate at the same level,” Malmstadt says. “[Some] people say, ‘I can’t afford a financial contribution, but I’d be glad to come into the classroom and work with the kids.'”

At the end of May, Stiles Machinery Inc., of Grand Rapids, MI, invited local WoodLINKS-USA students to tour its facility.

About 30 students from the Michigan Career Technical Institute of Pine Lake, MI, checked out new software and watched CNC equipment demonstrations, says Kevin Bonz, a Stiles Education faculty member.

“To put it in their vernacular, they were geeked,” Bonz says.

It wasn’t the first time that Stiles welcomed students into its facility, says former WoodLINKS-USA board member Duane Griffiths–and it won’t be the last.

“There’s a lot of support in the industry for WoodLINKS,” says Griffiths, Stiles’ manager of educational services. “It’s an investment that we all have to make. It’s an investment that we will all profit from.”

Students for Hire

While awareness about the program has been steadily increasing as more schools adopt WoodLINKS USA chapters, some organizations remain in the dark about what the program does.

“People say, ‘I hear a lot about you guys, but I don’t know what you’re doing,’ and that’s awful,” Torunski says.

In classes, students work as a team to learn about new technology in the industry and safety in the workshop, Torunski says. They often work on projects for their schools, businesses or local residents.

In one class at Shiloh High School in Hume, IL, students design, manufacture and install kitchen cabinets for local residents. Customers cover the cost of the materials and also donate $2,000 for the class to buy equipment, says Mark Smith, the school’s industrial technology teacher.

“We get calls all the time and people ask us, ‘Can you do this? Can you do that?'” Smith says. “We’re doing all kinds of things other than just learning how to do it and class room work.”

Schools determine how long students must enroll in WoodLINKS-USA classes before they take the certification test. But in order for students to become certified, they must earn a 70 percent average on their teacher evaluation and test score, Torunski says.

After high school, most students either start work in the industry or attend a two year technical college. Ryan Downey, a WoodLINKS-USA student at Shiloh High School in Hume, IL, says he plans to attend a two-year technical school after he graduates in spring 2005.

Some students will continue on to four-year universities. Adam Carrington, a 2004 Shiloh graduate, is enrolled in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for the fall semester. He says he plans to study aeronautical engineering.

Plans for Improvement

Future plans for WoodLINKS-USA include a reorganization of the curriculum. The current curriculum is generic: and broad, Torunski says. Creating a teaching plan focusing on skills used in local industries will be more beneficial to both the students and the industry, he adds. For example, schools in the Grand Rapids, MI, area would focus on making millwork and office furniture because those are important markets in that area.

Torunski says he would be “embarrassed” to go another year without updating the curriculum, but he needs funding to do so.

“Frankly, it’s unacceptable that as an industry program we can’t get our curriculum updated, but it costs a lot of money,” he says.

WoodLINKS USA also hopes to establish a master’s degree program at least eight American universities for WoodLINKS-USA teachers. The teachers want a program to learn about the latest technology so they can bring those ideas back to their students, Torunski says.

Funding proposals for both initiatives have been submitted to the National Science Foundation, and Torunski says he expects to hear the foundation’s verdict in October.

So, how many schools does Torunski hope will eventually adopt WoodLINKS-USA?

“As many good schools as possible,” he says.

Patrick LaFramboise, the president and CEO of IWF, says it’s important to let students know about the career opportunities available in the woodworking industry.

“I don’t know any company that can say they have all they need in terms of bright, capable, enthusiastic, energetic workers,” LaFramboise says. “Who doesn’t want to have a workforce made up of those kind of people?”

To contact WoodLINKS-USA for more information or to make a donation, call (616) 796-9556, e-mail wusa@charter.net or visit them at IWF Booth #AB20.

RELATED ARTICLE: NC state hosts camp for WoodLINKS-USA students.

Sixteen WoodLINKS-USA students and two high school teachers from around the country spent five days at the end of June learning more about their passion.

At the WoodLINKS USA camp at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, NC, students listened to lectures from university faculty, worked in the school’s facilities and toured local companies. The camp exposed them to educational and career opportunities in wood science, says Lesley Grieco, recruiting coordinator for the school’s department of wood and paper science.

“The visiting students really enjoyed traveling and seeing the different industries, especially because they were from all over the United States,” Grieco says.

The camp was organized by Grieco and Dr. Urs Buehlmann, an NC State assistant professor of wood products and a lecturer at the camp. NC State is one of nine schools in the country with an accredited wood science program, Grieco says. Camp participants were selected through an extensive application process. WoodLINKS-USA chapters near the students’ hometowns paid for their flights to North Carolina, and the university covered their expenses during the camp.

“They really tried to tell us and show us that the wood industry is alive and there are amazing opportunities,” says Adam Carrington, a 2004 graduate of Shiloh High School in Hume, IL, and a camp participant. “It’s not just you working on an assembly line, if that’s not what you want it to be.”

During a day trip, students toured the Greensboro, NC, facility of Delmac Machinery Group, where they saw equipment in action and asked questions about work in the industry.

“They were very intelligent and very interested in what was going on,” says Mark Bradley, Delmac’s software trainer.

While Grieco says recruiting future college students wasn’t the focus of the camp, some students did express interest in pursuing an undergraduate degree. “There are not enough students in the higher education wood schools,” Grieco says. “We’ve got to get some good students interested.”–Laurel Jorgensen

COPYRIGHT 2004 Vance Publishing Corp.

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