Heritage High School staff visit DENSO for externships

Heritage High School staff participate in an externship this month at DENSO Manufacturing Tennessee Inc. From left, teachers Holly Burns Whitehead, Mark Dowlen, Lynnette Cottrell, Mary Cooper and DENSO Senior Manager Bob Booker.

When Heritage High School teachers talk to students about the demands and opportunities in today’s workplaces, they have recent real-world experience to cite.

This month career and technical education teachers from Heritage, along with a team from Lincoln Heights Middle School in Morristown, spent four days at DENSO Manufacturing Tennessee Inc.

They took the entrance test, toured the facility and talked with employees and supervisors.

“It was awesome,” said Heritage computer science teacher Lynette Cottrell. “It gave me such insight into what a company like DENSO looks for in an employee.”

The Heritage High team was among 27 staff members from six schools to participate in the state School Team Externship Program, which last year was expanded to include counselors and administrators.

In previous years Heritage visited Eastman Chemical in Kingsport and Unum Group in Chattanooga.

“They’re all three very successful, and when you go to the company, you understand why they’re successful,” Cottrell said.

During the externship teachers are immersed in the company culture and learn about practices such as DENSO’s use of the kaizen continuous improvement process. They saw, for example, how the company sets goals, uses those goals to guide decisions and tracks progress.

The educators know that employers are looking for workers with soft skills, such as the ability to communicate professionally.

DENSO’s entrance exam tests not only math and logic skills but also teamwork and personality.

The employer is looking for people with a strong work ethic and willingness to learn. “They want their employees to get better,” Cottrell said, noting the company’s education center.

By explaining to students how they can apply what they love in the work world, teachers know they can ignite the type of passion that leads to the strong work ethic employers want.

“When you get the buy in, the work ethic is easy,” Cottrell said.

One of the DENSO employees the educators talked with was 2010 Heritage High valedictorian Kyle Perkins, now a senior specialist working with machinery and tools design.

“There is such a wide range of careers that you can pick from at DENSO,” Cottrell noted, including human resources, engineering, coding and machinists.

“I did not realize that, and I don’t think that our students realize that,” she said.

Perkins had an internship at TVA while he was in high school and then applied for an internship at DENSO while he was attending college.

“I didn’t know what we did specifically,” Perkins said of his first introduction to the company. Once he toured the area, he said, “I was pretty excited about it.”

DENSO’s Maryville facilities include both high-precision electrical operations and heavy-duty mechanical operations. First-time visitors often are surprised but how clean even the heavy-duty work is.

“It’s not what you think of when you hear manufacturing,” said Rachel Walker, a communications specialist with DENSO.

“We can’t let every student at HHS come in and do a tour,” she said, and that’s why the externships are so important.

Cottrell had a brief tour of the company a few years ago with another group of educators but still did not know much about the company until the extensive externship.

DENSO becoming more involved with schools, Walker said, reaching out not only to high schools but also elementary and middle schools.

“It’s very important for students to get involved early,” Perkins said.

He knew that he was interested in engineering but had no specific career path in mind. “I did not know much about automation or robotics until college,” he said.

The externship not only clarifies the skills industry expects from workers but also helps schools build partnerships with employers.

The state has been developing an externship guide for schools to create their own programs and will be providing training at its annual Institute for CTE Educators in July.

The state Education Department will hold a debriefing in Nashville next month, during which externs will develop plans for how they will incorporate what they learned into their schools.

Amy Beth earned her degree from West Virginia. She joined The Daily Times in 2016 on the education beat covering Alcoa, Maryville and Blount County school systems.

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