Ellis details role of Tyson Foods in Connect 4 program

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Rodney Ellis, technical education liaison and trainer for Tyson Foods, spoke at the Berryville Rotary Club on Tuesday, describing the support role the company will take for the Connect 4 program.

The Berryville, Eureka Springs and Green Forest school districts have agreed to run the Connect 4 program in the Carroll County Career Center, housed in the former National Guard armory in Berryville, for their junior and senior students who are interested in pursuing technical education.

Ellis began by explaining his own involvement in industry and technical education to the Rotarians. He said he started out in aviation, working as an airframe and power plant (A&P) mechanic for about 20 years.

“I took a lot of that technical background and went into the industrial side,” Ellis said. “I had gotten an associate’s degree while at A&P school, so I finished up my degree later and felt the call to go into education.”

He said he worked as an agriculture teacher for about 10 years. During that time he met Mike Rogers, the instructor of the Career Academy of Siloam Springs who has been hired by Tyson Foods as a consultant to draft a business plan for the Connect 4 program.

“Mike and I have a similar background. He came up with a proposal that we are starting to see across the industry,” Ellis said. “He was talking about getting kids straight from high school into industry careers.”

More and more people are waking up to the need for skilled technical laborers, he said, and he and Rogers looked at the Career Academy of Siloam Springs as a way to fit several skills trades under one umbrella, including electrical skills, plumbing and carpentry.

The umbrella study they settled on was industrial maintenance, he said.

“What that means is you have all these skills trades like electrical and ammonia refrigeration, which is a big player right here, under that umbrella,” Ellis said. “If you have a student or adult worker who comes into that program and decides ‘I really want to branch off and become a welder,’ then they can do that.”

He said that he and Rogers like to say the industrial maintenance field is a mile wide and an inch deep.

“A good industrial maintenance technician is truly the jack of all trades,” Ellis said. “We try to hook them up to every job we can think of. We’re trying to expose them to every trade possible.”

Tyson Foods will have a support role in the Connect 4 program, he said. In addition to donating $1.3 million to the project to get it started, he said, Tyson will do construction on the old armory and set it up so it’s ready for all the tooling and equipment required for industrial maintenance education.

“There has been a dire need over the past 20 years to get the technical side plugged back into our high schools, and people across the United States are waking up to it,” Ellis said. “My specific job for Tyson is going all over the country to find communities they’re in where people come together, like the superintendents did here, and realize the need for this.”

He said he is glad to see the momentum growing for the Connect 4 program in Carroll County.

“I think it’s going to be great for your kids and the community,” Ellis said. “Another piece most people don’t realize is your adult workforce.”

Training centers like the Career Academy of Siloam Springs and the Connect 4 program can bring adult workers in and provide them a place to train and upgrade their skills to make a better standard of living for themselves, he said.

“This program gives your high school kids a lot of training with a lot of variation and will also give the adult workforce a lot of variation and skill training,” Ellis said. “One of the big things we wanted for our Siloam Springs school was for it to be a hub not only for our high school but also for our community.”

Local businesses will be able to send adult workers to Connect 4 to train day or night, depending on their work schedule. The workers could get some short-term certificates in eight to 10-week courses that will bolster their trade skills, he said.

Ellis said Connect 4 will utilize the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER), a nationally accepted apprenticeship program that encompasses 70 skill trades.

“It’s a pretty rigorous program,” he said. “We accelerated it for high school juniors and seniors at Siloam Springs, and it’s the same model we’re going to follow for Connect 4. When they come in, the first semester there are about 32 modules they have to go through. It’s anywhere from basic electricity to basic plumbing.”

The program will also teach high school students about OSHA safety requirements, he said, and develop soft skills such as communication, time management, teamwork, critical thinking and conflict resolution.

Ellis said the goal is to get local business leaders involved in the Connect 4 program as well.

“I’m working on grants for this program, and I have to have a list of at least 25 businesses who are committed to this school,” he said. “That may mean you come in one day and do a class for 30 minutes about what students need to do when they go in interviews. Explain this is how you need to dress, how you need to speak, how you need to present yourself.”

He continued, “It’s all about things we take for granted that we need to speak into their lives. Talk it up amongst all your businesses in the county. It should attract industry and enhance the industry that is here.”

Ellis said he will also be working with the instructor of Connect 4 once the schools hire someone for the position.

“We say that person has got to be wired and inspired,” he said. “They have to be able to hook these kids, sell the program and then push them when they get here. That’s one of the things that made the Career Academy of Siloam Springs successful.”

The three high schools will manage the career center and supply the instructor and a receptionist for the program, he said.

“They are going to run it. They will hire the instructor and all that,” Ellis said. “We will support the program by bringing money up front and tie in everything we can. We’re always seeking donations because Tyson does not want to be the only player in the game.”

He said Tyson Foods hopes to begin construction on the career center this fall.

“We’re waiting on the three superintendents to tell us how funds will be appropriated. We hope to have the instructor hired and start adult education classes in January if construction goes on schedule,” Ellis said. “That way, they can showcase the program to high school students and sell them on it for the 2018-19 school year.”

He said that he and Tyson Foods are trying to contact other local businesses to become partners in the Connect 4 program and would appreciate any help from community leaders with reaching out to new businesses.

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