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CEDAR FALLS — Finding new talent is important to companies as they plan for future workforce needs. But even as Kevin Watje was hiring one such prospect this summer, the chief executive officer of Curbtender worried that he might have found someone too new.

Nathan Hoffman’s task was to design a lifting device for the garbage trucks Curbtender manufactures. The recent graduate of Cedar Falls High School only had a brief window in which to work, though. He was heading to college this fall.

Hoffman had been referred to Watje by Cedar Falls Community Schools’ Center for Advanced Professional Studies (CAPS) after going through its engineering program. He came with high recommendations on his abilities to do computer-aided design work.

Still, Watje admitted that he was skeptical. Then Hoffman started working.

“He picked it up right away and we were so impressed with that,” said Watje, professing amazement at how quickly the teenager became proficient. “In the six weeks he was here, he literally designed a product for us.”

The company needs to build a prototype yet, but the CEO has high hopes for the product and how it will position them in the market. “If that is successful, we’ll have a heck of a competitive advantage,” he said, over other garbage truck manufacturers.

Now Curbtender has two more students who’ve gone through CAPS, senior Frank Zhang and junior Jacob Smothers, designing an arm for a garbage truck. They are reverse engineering the arm based on an older product. Watje likes what he is seeing from the pair.

“It’s been a great experience for us,” he said.

While the students’ work at Curbtender is similar to what’s done in the CAPS program, in these cases they are directly paid employees of the company and not earning dual high school-college credit. But the company got interested in the students after it became a business partner with CAPS.

Ethan Wiechmann, director of the high school program, said those connections to the business community are what matter.

“The program gets a lot of people at the table,” he said. “The key to the success is everyone finding value.”

CAPS is touting some other recent successes, as well.

Students in last spring’s CAPS session designed a set of large banners for Cedar Falls Community Main Street that can now be seen hanging on posts by the library and between Second and Third streets. The program held its first summer CAPS session, from which Zhang and Smothers were recruited to work at Curbtender. And its officials are working with Jesup and Waterloo Columbus high schools to start their own Center for Advanced Professional Studies programs.

Teenage engineers

Curbtender’s hiring of students is “a great CAPS story,” said Wiechmann. “We’ve got a 16-year-old and a 17-year-old that are working as engineers on this project.”

Wiechmann said the district decided to hold the summer CAPS program, which enrolled five students, because of the difficulty some kids had in finding time in their schedule to take it.

Cedar Falls is part of a Center for Advanced Professional Studies network that includes 52 programs involving 106 school districts in 15 states and two countries. But the district was a pioneer with its summer offering. Aside from Cedar Falls Schools, “none of them have run an actual for-credit CAPS program in the summer,” he noted.

Both Zhang and Smothers are interested in studying engineering in college. They learned computer-aided design skills through the CAPS program and earlier Project Lead the Way classes.

“As we were going through CAPS, I was thinking these skills would help me get a job one day,” said Smothers. “I just didn’t realize how soon.”

Watje’s wife was at an event where the summer CAPS students were making presentations about their projects and alerted her husband that there were two more students with an interest in engineering that he may want to consider hiring. They started working for Curbtender about two weeks before school started and are continuing this fall after classes each day.

When they were offered the positions, “that was pretty surprising,” said Zhang. The boys are learning a lot about engineering and picking up some new skills related to the design program used by Curbtender.

“It’s just a lot of new experiences here that we didn’t have to deal with in the classroom,” said Zhang. “So we’re learning here every day.”

Along the way, they’ve also made quite a bit of progress on the project. Once the design is done, a prototype will be made.

“We’ll start probably cutting steel for that in two weeks,” said Watje. “They’re going to see it to completion, is my hope.”

Afterward, “if they want to stay with us, we have another project for them,” he noted. “By the end of their school year, I’m hoping both of those projects are complete and in production.”

Main Street banners

The Community Main Street banner design, which includes the CAPS logo, was offered by the organization as a project for the program. It was chosen for the “design sprint” done by the full group over three days at the beginning of spring semester. CAPS students are otherwise divided between the Cedar Falls’ programs four “strands”: Robotics and engineering, solutions (which is business-focused), education, and medical and health services.

“This just happened to be a project that was on our list,” said Carol Lilly, executive director of Community Main Street. “This is kind of that basic set (of banners) that will go up that aren’t seasonal.”

Community Main Street officials gave the students design guidelines and received many proposals that a committee narrowed down before picking the winner. “It was really hard for our committee to pick from,” said Lilly. “There were so many good ideas.”

The design they chose includes a blue line through the center of the banner based on a satellite image of the Cedar River. Blocks of red, green and orange spread across it horizontally. Lilly said the ability to transfer the design to a banner and how colors matched the downtown area’s branding gave it an edge.

Participating in the CAPS can give businesses and organizations “an option for some of those projects you can’t get to,” she said. In addition, the program “helps foster the next generation of community leaders.”

Interest growing

Cedar Falls CAPS leaders are working across school lines to help their brand of career education proliferate. Teachers with Jesup and Columbus high schools are being trained so each can set up their own programs, which could begin second semester. Like the Cedar Falls program, the two schools will partner with businesses at off-campus locations to provide real-world career experiences.

“We think this model has some legs to it and a lot of potential,” said Wiechmann. “We just need to figure out all the bugs.”

Jesup’s program will be located in a building being renovated by its partners, Farmers State Bank and Heartland Technology.

“We’re pretty excited about it. From the sound of it, it will be a co-working space that will house CAPS,” said Paul Rea, Jesup High School principal. “I know that we had a lot of support from our businesses in Jesup.”

Daniel Thole, Columbus principal, said Cedar Valley Catholic Schools’ administrators were looking for career education with a variety of components including experiential learning and opportunities to give back to the community.

“The CAPS program really allows us to do that pretty easily,” he noted. “We’re very excited for the Cedar Valley to benefit from this as much as our students.”

Details are not yet worked out concerning partner businesses or the program’s location.

“We’re still in the planning stages of all those logistics,” said Thole. “The first step was to inform the (school) board of this. Now that is passed, we’re going to begin the rest of it.”

Rea said his school is piloting CAPS on behalf of Cedar Valley Northeast, a consortium of districts that work to provide common professional development opportunities to their staffs. Others in the group include the Denver, Dunkerton, Wapsie Valley, Tripoli, Sumner-Fredericksburg and Clarksville school districts. Some or all of them may be interested in implementing the program during future years.

“I feel like we’re doing everything to get prepared to give our kids a great learning experience,” said Rea.

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