Learning While Printing
What do you want to be when you grow up?” is the tiresome question frequently asked of teenagers who, more often than not, haven’t got a clue — much less an answer. But students at Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Technical High School (BVT) in Upton, Mass., not only have clear career goals in mind, but also spend four years actively pursuing them. That’s good news for area sign company owners who are always in need of skilled workers in a constantly evolving print world.
When Tom Lamont came on board in 2014 to lead BVT’s Painting and Design Technology program, most of the students in the program were only there because their first choices, like Electronics & Engineering Technology or Dental Assisting, were full, he says. Lamont’s mission was to innovate the program by upgrading the technology and curriculum, and enhancing student interest; otherwise it would be shut down.
“So, it was a do-or-die kind of thing. Let’s try to make this happen, and if it doesn’t, we’re moving on,” Lamont recalls.
Despite that dire warning, BVT, which receives students from 13 communities, put its full faith in Lamont, who had decades of experience in the sign industry. He added sign printing to the curriculum and acquired much-needed equipment, including a Roland DGA printer and a Summa vinyl cutter, as well as the soft tools and materials required to run a professional shop. He also changed the program’s name to Painting and Design Technology to reflect its enhanced offerings and revised the program’s brochure on BVT’s website to make it more appealing to both students and parents. In his first year, the shop had eight seniors, half of whom, Lamont believes, didn’t want to be there. Now in its seventh year, the program has 16 students from each grade level — and a waiting list.
The Latest Technology
“The school was really helpful and asked what I needed. Every time I said I needed something, they bought it. They knew nothing about [the industry]. I was the new guy and they were putting a lot faith in me,” Lamont says. Painting and Design Technology's equipment list includes a Roland True VIS SG-300 and the new VG2-540, an HP wide-format printer, an Epilog Fusion Pro 5G laser printer, a Royal Sovereign laminator, and a CNC cutter by Iconic.
“We try to buy equipment that is current,” Lamont explains, so students will have an opportunity to learn and train using the tools and equipment they will encounter in the workplace. Typically, BVT students spend a full week in an academic classroom and the following week in their respective shops.
In the Painting and Design Technology shop, sophomores and seniors alternate their shop weeks with freshmen and juniors. At the start of the day, they focus on related theory about a particular project and then physically make it. If, for example, the class is going to make window graphics, Lamont and the other instructor talk about what’s required to make the product, demonstrate how it is done, and then allow the students to fabricate it themselves. By doing this repeatedly, Lamont explains, students are eventually able to go to the machines to make their own products with minimal or no assistance.
The first year, students focus primarily on the painting portion of the curriculum. As sophomores they are introduced to computer technology and Adobe Illustrator. They also begin to produce simple signage jobs and learn how to cut vinyl. As juniors, they do a lot more interior design work for which they also produce signage. Throughout the program, students learn how to design, produce, and install their work. They must also price jobs, which teaches them the value of their work. In addition, third-semester juniors and seniors have the opportunity to continue their shop week at school or participate in a co-op program at local sign companies.
“Our biggest client is our school, obviously, because it’s massive and there’s a lot of work that has to be done all of the time. We letter all of our trucks and vans, and all of the graphics needed are now done in-house. We provide graphics for the sports program, T-shirts, banners, stickers, banners, privacy films, and posters,” says Lamont. And as Massachusetts schools prepare for the return of in-person learning, the shop is producing COVID-19 safety stickers and floor graphics. The school district was extremely pleased that the COVID graphics could be done in-house because it saved the district between $8,000 and $10,000.
The shop’s biggest project so far involved working with other shops to produce a huge scoreboard for BVT featuring the school’s mascot. “It was drawn in my shop, and we created a huge beaver head that we laid out in Illustrator, printed, and applied to the board,” he says.
While BVT keeps the shop extremely busy, students get many opportunities to produce outside jobs. Recently, they were invited by the McLaren automobile dealership in Connecticut to print and apply vinyl graphics to its cars for a car show using BVT’s Roland printer. Local car enthusiasts also entrust them to produce graphics and wraps for luxury vehicles, including Porsches and Ferraris. The students also produce banners and other graphics for nonprofits and small jobs for surrounding communities. Other outside jobs have included corrugated plastic signs for local crafts fairs and a request from a local police chief for graphics for cruisers during Breast Cancer Awareness Week. “We really do not want to compete with local sign companies,” Lamont explains. “We’re here to help them, not outbid them, so we do everything that we can with nonprofits and some work for municipalities to save the towns money. We do have some people come in off the street who need banners or some other small job, but we’re not really trying to advertise or take out the guys around us. We want to work with our sign companies, not against them.” Local companies want to work with Lamont’s students, as well, which has enabled them to get invaluable workplace experience through the school’s co-op program. Once students find placements, Lamont inspects the worksites to make sure that OSHA and other regulations are being properly implemented and that the work reflects what the students are learning and doing in the shop. Lamont’s program is so impressive that sign companies are always asking if they can get another student, and adults have even inquired about night classes because BVT is the only school in the area that provides such training.
BVT’s students “can walk into a company, get hired and sit down and work on [companies’] printers, and employers are amazed by that. If a company doesn’t have a printer, they’ll buy a Roland because my students know how to use it and they hope my students will train them on it, which is pretty amazing to hear.” Lamont says. “Five local sign companies have hired our kids because they know how to use the equipment.”
The vast majority of students choose college over the workforce upon graduation, which is a local frustration given that BVT is a vocational school. Lamont would like to see more students enter the print industry, but also sees a silver lining. One student who is in art school and is passionate about textiles and fabrics, for example, has an advantage because the printer she uses to print fabrics is very much like the Roland she used at BVT.
“What amazes me most about a lot of these students is how each one of them thinks uniquely differently from the and how, even though I’ve been in the industry so long, they can surprise me,” Lamont muses. “That’s what’s cool. Give them the tools and let them go.”