In 2019, Sara Boatman emerged from rehab ready to make a change. Before rehab, she had spent time in jail for a drug-related conviction and lost her license as a nursing professional. Now she needed a new career, one that would provide enough money to not only survive but keep her moving in the right direction.
She saw a flyer advertising a program where she could learn welding at Wichita State University Tech (WSU Tech) in six months. It included a paid internship. “I would make more from the internship than from my current job at a fast food restaurant,” Sara recalls. She enrolled, wondering whether she could keep up with such a physically and mentally challenging trade.
“For a lot of people like me, we get discouraged,” Sara explains. “We’re embarrassed that we made mistakes in the past and don’t want to tell people about it.”
So, she felt intimidated to discover that, as part of the WSU Tech curriculum, she was required to complete a work ethic training program created by Mike Rowe — executive producer and host best known for throwing himself into grueling jobs on the iconic TV series "Dirty Jobs."
Once enrolled, Sara found herself laughing at each session’s introductory video, where Mike would weave self-deprecating humor into personal anecdotes. She also discovered parallels between what she learned in recovery and his S.W.E.A.T. Pledge, which stands for “Skills and Work Ethic Aren’t Taboo” and promotes four key principles: work ethic, personal responsibility, delayed gratification, and a positive attitude. Focusing on those values at work and in her life “kept things simple and made it a lot easier to succeed,” Sara says.
This kind of self-awareness and accountability was precisely what Jennifer Roe wanted to awaken in her students when she piloted the mikeroweWORKS Work Ethic Certification at WSU Tech. More than 1,800 students have completed the certification since 2019. As the school’s director of leadership and personal development, Jennifer believes that employability skills (also known as soft skills, such as communication, collaboration and perseverance) are crucial to success, but difficult to teach effectively.
“We needed something that felt real to people,” Jennifer explains. “Something that was not too high-level or too low, and presented like an informal conversation.”
Jennifer also needed something that could reach people regardless of their stage in life or career. “We have a lot of young people starting out, as well as career changers or even business owners who come back for a new skill or trade,” she says.
As a representative of WSU Tech, Jennifer joined with Koch Industries, the Charles Koch Foundation and the National Coalition of Certification Centers (NC3) to help the mikeroweWORKS Foundation develop just that kind of program. The team’s goal was to provide tangible ways for technical students to develop work habits and attitudes to excel in any job. What they came up with was a regimen of 12 lessons, each of which begins with a video of Mike Rowe introducing a specific theme, followed by a related group challenge — some as off-the-wall as building a tower of Smarties with their non-dominant hand. At the end of six months, the students know how to manage their expenses, identify opportunity in any task and adapt to unexpected challenges, along with several other skills that offer a winning proposition to employers. This approach dovetails well with several of Koch Industries’ core principles, including the belief that the accomplishment of any individual — or organization — requires a lifelong commitment to learning and self-improvement.
For Sara, the group activities could be stressful, particularly since many of her teammates had differing life experiences. She remembers a particularly frustrating session, where her team tried to put a jigsaw puzzle together without the guidance of a picture and incorrect pieces mixed into the box. “It was difficult to get them to focus,” she says. “But I drew upon our training remembering where they’re coming from and figuring out how to work together for a common goal.” And sure enough, when the session’s timer rang, Sara’s team had fit the last piece of the puzzle into place.
She also got smart about turning to mentors like Jennifer for help. When Sara had to miss sessions for court dates or other obligations, she would meet with Jennifer later to follow up on what she’d missed. The two put in extra time building Sara’s LinkedIn profile, and Sara felt a surge of confidence from seeing her skills and contacts laid out in an employable arc. She even felt empowered to help lobby WSU Tech to remove a question regarding prior convictions from the school’s application, removing an unintended barrier to others who could benefit from the course.
After graduating from WSU Tech in 2020, Sara received a full-time offer from the company where she had an internship. This job, where she provides welding services to build construction equipment, has enabled her to earn a good living and weather the challenges of the pandemic. Now she is considering additional programs, including one at WSU Tech, to specialize in pipeline welding or tungsten inert gas (TIG) welding. These are skills that can create more value in the marketplace and for Sara, personally.
The programs are tough, often requiring a one- or two-year commitment, which Sara would have to fulfill while balancing her current job. She feels up for the challenge, however, thanks to WSU Tech and mikeroweWORKS: “I had a big chip on my shoulder coming into this program. But I learned that despite my past, if I am honest with people and put in the hard work and make an extra effort, it will show."