'Temporary' teaching job turns into 39-year career
Mike Harris was only going to be a teacher for one year -- and that was only because he promised his mother, he'd try it. He was earning a good living in the industrial welding field, but for his mother's sake -- she was a teacher -- he agreed to try it for one year. Now, 39 years later, Harris is a retired teacher.
He came to McCook High School in 1971 as a wrestling coach and industrial technology teacher and retired from that position in 2001. He started teaching classes at McCook Community College in 1982, and after 28 years, he's stepping aside to devote more time to his family.
"Mike is a 'one-of-a-kind' professional," said MPCC President Dr. Michael Chipps. "He is flexible, innovative and loves the practice of teaching and learning. He deeply cares about students of all types, ages, and abilities."
Chipps went on to say that Harris was patient and considerate of what was needed to develop complex technical skills and maintained a sincere desire to make learning an enjoyable experience for all his students.
For the past eight years, as a part-time instructor, he has helped lead the effort to bring welding training to MCC at a level that has exceeded most expectations. With Harris in the pilot's seat, MPCC began a partnership in 2009 to provide training in welding and machine shop skills in the newly renovated Center for Applied Science and Technology in the 200 block of East B Street.
Over the past year, the C.A.S.T. program provided high school and college students the opportunity to develop job skills in a McCook facility and to remain here after graduation. Some of the welding equipment was purchased by MPCC, some by McCook Public Schools, some by Valmont and some by the McCook College Foundation.
High school and college students have earned certificates, diplomas or associate of applied science degree in welding and/or machining. Last week, Harris completed his sixth session of offering welding classes to Work Ethic Camp students taking the nine-week course. Through the first two years of the program more than 40 of those students have earned certificates of completion and some have earned welding certification.
He has seen the positive impact this program -- this opportunity -- has had for some of his students.
"I've heard from a number of former students in this program -- I'd say about 25 percent -- who after being given this opportunity, are either working in the welding industry or working toward an educational goal, like additional certification or degrees," Harris said.
"This has been a very unique opportunity for me and I'd have to say is been very positive. We've helped provide training to help them out of their situations, and that is exactly what many of them have done."
Yet the WEC students are just one aspect of the program.
The number of college students enrolled in the program has also exceeded expectations to the point college officials are already changing the remodeled facility to meet new demands.
"Things are really happening fast and it's so handy to have the partners we have that can help us adequately respond to the industry's ever changing welding needs," Harris said.
For instance, in the short time since the college remodeled the facility, the needs of industry partners have changed, so the college has responded accordingly. One of the changes involves planning for the changing role of robotics (or robotic welding) in today's welding industry.
"While the industry is relying more on robotics, we're going to provide training opportunities there while still maintaining and improving our training manual welding and in machine shop technology," Harris said.
In addition to the welding training for WEC students, MPCC has also started offering them business technology classes.
In today's society, the committee-approach often results in "too many cooks spoiling the broth."
Yet, Harris said this partnership approach in welding has worked out about as well as anyone could have predicted and he can't say enough about the pride and dedication of everyone involved in the project. In addition to the college, the partnership involves, McCook Public Schools, the Nebraska Department of Corrections Work Ethic Camp; Valmont Industries Inc., Phoenix Transitional Services, Nebraska Workforce Development, and the McCook College Foundation.
"We have a unique niche here in Southwest Nebraska not only in training our residents in these technology fields but also in employing them, and so far this program is doing both," Harris said.
Now that Harris is stepping aside, the Mid Plains Community College board of governors recently approved funding for a full-time welding and machine shop instructor.
"This is a great opportunity for someone to come in and really put it all together, and they'll be doing it on a full-time basis, and things are happening so fast right now it's really an exciting time for the program," Harris said.
"We are losing not only an excellent faculty member, but an individual who has been instrumental with the formation of the Center for Applied Science and Technology. We wish Mike the best as he retires and know that retirement does not mean that he will just go fishing," Chipps said. "Mike will always be involved in the life of his community and with helping others to better their lives."
As he turns over the reins to a new instructor, he is also stepping away from another venture he's been involved with for a number of years -- politics.
He's been mayor of Indianola for the past four years and a member of city council since 1994, but said he is not seeking re-election. In addition, his small engine repair/specialized welding business may take a back seat to grandchildren's ball games and other activities.
"It has been great," Harris said of his time with MPCC, "and I have nothing but positive things to say about the people involved in this partnership, but it's time for me to step aside. I need to go watch some ball games."