Over the years, I have heard that people who grew up on small family farms in northern New England were usually handy in making things do, in times of breakdowns on the farm. Necessity really was the “mother of invention”, and sometimes that piece of bailing twine, or that roll of duct tape, might make all the difference in terms of getting the job done today, or waiting until the next day. Usually understanding how a piece of mechanical equipment works was far better in fixing something broken than just replacing parts. The collection of old farm machinery often could be turned into a “gold mine” of replacement pulleys, transmissions, belts and other parts when it came to keeping the job running.
This was the case for Mike Howe, the Heavy Equipment and Welding Instructor at River Bend Career and Technical Center (RBCTC). Mike grew up on a small farm in Dorchester, NH, where his family had milking cows, loads of chickens, pigs, and all of the equipment to keep the farm running. At an early age, Mike found a real love and knack in “turning wrenches” (as he says) on the farm. His passion for fixing and operating equipment stayed with him as he graduated from Mascoma High School, and moved him toward seeking a degree in Marine Mechanics at the New England Institute of Technology in Rhode Island.
While in Rhode Island, Mike was able to perfect his craft on boats, ranging from 12 feet to 75 feet, as he worked in marinas as part of his tech school program. The staff at NEIT soon realized Mike’s skill level and offered him the opportunity of becoming hired as a lab assistant at the school. In this capacity, Mike worked with the teachers in the various programs, and also served as a regular substitute in the marine mechanics program, automotive mechanics program, and the auto body program. The administration felt Mike should participate in some additional teacher-training; so they helped him earn his bachelor’s degree in technical and career education at Rhode Island College.
After a number of years in the Rhode Island area, the opportunity came for Mike to move back to our area; and he started at Loon Mountain, running their small engine shop for a period of time. In addition, he also has run his own equipment repair business from home; fixing everything from snow machines to construction equipment. Over the years, he has also worked as an equipment operator for a local excavation company during the summers, while operating and repairing snow-groomers at both Loon Mountain and the Dartmouth Ski Way. As he reflects back on his snow grooming days, he knows that he has spent countless hours training others in the safe and quality operation of these mighty machines, right from the cab!
During the spring of one of the years of grooming, doing ski trail work, and the repair and maintenance of the ski area equipment, Mike was injured and required some complicated surgery on his back. His recovery time to return to work was a full year, but he was able to return to the ski industry for one more winter. It was at that time, seven years ago, that Mike heard of a possible opening to teach the subject he loved so dearly at River Bend Career and Technical Center. He applied, landed the job, and couldn’t be happier!
When you ask Mike about the best part of the job that he has been teaching at River Bend, he is quick to say that it is the kids in his program. He really feels that the students who enter his program almost always have a love of operating equipment, fixing equipment, and metal fabrication. He loves to build on their interest and help them succeed. He also feels that the connection some of his students make in his program might be a key contributing factor to their staying in school, finishing high school, and moving into the “world of work”.
When asked about the biggest challenge he faces in the program, he is very clear that keeping the sixteen different types of equipment repaired and running is always a challenge; as well as keeping pace with changes in the industry. Fortunately, Mike’s advisory members and employment connections for students help him immensely in offering opportunities for students to keep up with industry changes.
Students leave Mike’s program in high demand for the industry, or for chances to gain more training in post-secondary situations. A two year completer in this program leaves with credentials such as CPR and First Aid training; Vermont Flagger Certification; a 10-hour OSHA certification; certifications in the nationally recognized level 1 and 2 of The Game of Logging; and mastered competencies from the National Center for Construction Education and Research, which will stay with the student forever. In addition, for the past few years, students who are close to being 18 years of age can return in the summer and complete a commercial driving license (CDL) program. Mike has also expanded his program to serve adults who might be interested in these same skills, and River Bend will be offering Friday and Saturday classes starting during March of this year.
As a result of RBCTC writing a grant for Mike’s adult program, the center was able to purchase three indoor heavy equipment simulators, with the help of Vermont John Deere, to replicate operating road graders, excavators, and dozers. The day-students are benefiting greatly from the opportunity to develop dexterity during the winter, which was previously not available to them. This is cost-effective and can be done, even if a student has as little as ten minutes of free time between classes.
The program is certainly the largest of its type in Vermont, and seems to be growing all of the time. Many of the current students participate in cooperative education experiences outside the classroom during the week. The program has received a huge help from Vermont Department of Transportation (VTrans) in Thetford, VT as well as the NH Department of Transportation (NHDOT). In addition, Paige Excavation, Benoit Electric, and Britton Lumber take on students who would like to learn more. Mike has had students accepted by Pike Industries, various welding shops, local excavation companies, and truck repair facilities.
Mike Howe feels that his students can match their skills with the best in the business, and that the skills they have developed in the program will serve them for the rest of their lives. He is thankful to be able to be part of this skill development, and to see the growth and maturity that his students develop in their time with him. Congratulations on a great program, Mike!