Orleans Technical Institute

Brian Jones, left, a teacher at Orleans Technical Institute, shows students how to check the positioning of a door frame. Photo courtesy of JEVS Human Services

What started 35 years ago as a school offering clerical courses to women returning to the work force has become a place where students of all ages facing a host of disadvantages can work toward a career in the building trades.

Individuals who have grown up poor, are barely literate, have been in prison or have abused drugs are among those benefiting from the knowledge of experienced boomers and older instructors over 50, who make up most of the teaching staff at the nonprofit Orleans Technical Institute in Philadelphia. And more than half of the roughly 120 employees schoolwide, including support staff and job placement counselors, are 50-plus.

Orleans is operated by JEVS Human Services, a social service agency and one of the largest nonprofits in the region. The school helps its instructors – former plumbers, electricians, carpenters and others – learn to transfer their skills to the classroom and relate to the students.

“Having a teacher who has worked in the field is absolutely invaluable,” says Kristen Rantanen, a JEVS vice president. “Students have an opportunity to learn from someone who has 20, 30 years in the field. That’s worth the price of admission.”

Adds Jayne Siniari, Orleans’ executive director, “Basically, our instructors have gotten into this field because they love teaching. And they want to give back.”

That’s why Linda Dunphy, herself an Orleans graduate, became an instructor there in 2002.

“I love helping the students and sharing my experience and knowledge,” says Dunphy, 57, a laid-off manufacturing worker who has performed maintenance and repair jobs through the years. “It is very rewarding to see that you can take someone who has never lifted a hammer before or put in a garbage disposal and give them the skills to do numerous tasks for their future profession.”

Aaron Lewis, 43, feels fortunate to have Dunphy as a teacher. “I believe that the maturity and wisdom that Ms. Dunphy brings to the classroom surpasses that of a younger teacher,” he says.

Lewis is enrolled in the school’s six-month building trades program, one of a variety of full- and part-time diploma programs at Orleans.

From a practical standpoint, says Leslie Jones, Orleans’ human resources manager, hiring 50-plus workers to teach the courses has been good for business, noting, “In our case, the hires we’ve made for instructor positions at our trades school have really paid off.”

For example, the teaching staff’s reputation has helped lead to solid connections with area businesses. In turn, those relationships have helped the school achieve a 74 percent job placement rate, which it uses to attract new students.

David Brandolph of David Brandolph Electric Co. in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, has hired dozens of Orleans graduates. He says he knows the students are committed and the instructors can break down the obstacles to learning that some students face.

Teachers without extensive practical work and life experience are less likely to have the know-how, Brandolph says. “I don’t think you can take someone with five years’ experience, put them in the classroom, and say: ‘Teach these kids.’”

For more information, contact Diane Posternack, diane.posternack@jevs.org. Or visit: orleanstech.edu.