Our educational system tends to focus on preparing students for college, and while that’s the right choice for many, it’s not the only opportunity to continue one’s education or land a well-paying job after high school.
According to the Construction Industry Service Corporation, just four out of 100 college graduates right out of school will earn more than a journeyman will make right after completing an apprenticeship. With an anticipated shortage in skilled workers in the near-future, both locally and nationally, many schools and organizations are making great efforts to inform students of this often-overlooked career choice.
A Perfect Mission
The Peoria Educational Region For Employment and Career Training (P.E.R.F.E.C.T.) is one such organization. Its mission is to oversee state and federal grants to provide career exploration activities inside and outside of the classroom. Susan Sherwood, special projects coordinator with P.E.R.F.E.C.T., said, “We work really hard to provide career exploration activities for students in [kindergarten through 12th grade], to enhance and supplement the opportunities the students have already had in school, and to give them an opportunity to see how the core curriculum they are learning in the traditional classroom can be applied to their adult lives.”
Working with educators and school counselors, P.E.R.F.E.C.T. strives to increase authentic learning by answering the question all students ask at some point: “Why do I need to know this?” Providing that answer is extremely important: If students don’t understand the relevance of what they’re learning, they are more likely to drop out. According to a Gates Foundation report, 81 percent of students who dropped out said that “more real-world learning” might have influenced them to stay in school. The skilled trades certainly offer many opportunities to see classroom learning put to work.
It’s never too early to start learning practical applications for what is being taught in the classroom, and so P.E.R.F.E.C.T.’s work begins with elementary school students. “We are here to open doors and give [students] opportunities you would not see in any traditional classroom,” explained Sherwood. According to Ginger Johnson, executive director of the Tri-County Construction Labor-Management Council (TRICON), several years ago, a number of Construct Your Future kits were developed by the AFL-CIO and distributed to middle school classrooms throughout central Illinois. The kits, which included lesson planning materials and videos featuring the skilled trades, were intended to increase students’ knowledge of the trades and suggest apprenticeships as a viable alternative to attending a two- or four-year college, or simply entering the workforce after high school.
One of the many benefits of entering the trades, as Marty Helfers of the West Central Illinois Building & Construction Trades Council was quick to point out, is that skilled trades apprentices are among the few people who receive a formal education that doesn’t result in student loan debt. Apprentices are trained on the job and required to attend school—for free—one or two nights a week, depending on their particular trade. The fact that the trades pay apprentices while educating and training them is a true benefit.
And that’s not the only perk. Most of the people with whom I spoke reported that students are always amazed to find that the average hourly rate for a tradesman journeyman (one who has completed an apprenticeship and is a qualified worker in a particular trade) is $31.07—a figure that typically comes with very good health benefits and a pension plan.
Educating the Educators
It’s not just students who are amazed by this information, but educators and school counselors as well. One of the most successful programs created through the partnership among P.E.R.F.E.C.T., TRICON and the local labor unions is the Construction Industry Educator Job Shadow, which takes place each June. This program allows up to 25 K-12 educators to participate in a weeklong introduction to the skilled trades by visiting job sites and participating in hands-on activities at apprenticeship schools.
Participants, reported Sherwood, have been blown away by the experience again and again. After seeing for themselves the quality of the apprenticeship coordinators and instructors, elementary and high school teachers are much more willing to suggest the trades as a viable career option. “The students and teachers involved in any of our programs will never look at a construction worker the same again,” added Sherwood. “The respect that comes out of this program for construction workers is huge because it’s obvious they have to be very intelligent, well-trained people.”
Thanks to the collaborative efforts of P.E.R.F.E.C.T., TRICON and the unions, students are formally introduced to the skilled trades in elementary school. This could come in the form of a fifth-grade lesson on the trades or in books made available to school libraries throughout central Illinois. No matter how the introduction is made, what’s important is that students learn early on that the trades offer great opportunities for fulfilling, lifelong careers.
Middle and junior high schools are afforded additional materials and access to interactive ways for its students to become better acquainted with the skilled trades. Besides putting on a 7th-grade career day, TRICON, P.E.R.F.E.C.T. and the unions welcome about 1,200 central Illinois 8th graders at the Construction Industry Career Expo each fall. Here, students learn about various trades and gain hands-on experience using a jackhammer, pounding nails, wiring circuits, hanging wallpaper, cutting pipe and operating a back hoe. By showing students things they can’t learn in the classroom, P.E.R.F.E.C.T.’s mission of opening doors for students
Bringing Excitement to the Classroom
After getting a taste of the skilled trades in junior high or middle school, students are able to more fully explore options within the trades as high schoolers. As part of the restructuring process at Peoria’s Manual High School, a Business, Industrial and Sustainable Technology Academy is being formed, and one of the paths students can pursue within the academy is architecture and construction, allowing them to learn what it takes to enter the industry.
“To date, we have worked with P.E.R.F.E.C.T., Workforce [Network] and the community trades to identify skill sets necessary and desired in this career path,” reported Dr. Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat, the school’s principal. “We have identified several qualified individuals to teach these courses. These individuals can blend professional work experiences with foundational information to give students firsthand knowledge about the careers.”
Another local school has been doing a great service to its students by offering a construction program for over 10 years. Pekin High School’s program challenges students “to work hard to create a product which will sell in a competitive market,” noted Tim Ruwe, assistant superintendent for instruction and personnel. “Students are exposed to and participate in all steps through completion of the finished product.”
Since the renewal of this class in the 1998-’99 school year—it had been suspended because of a downturn in the building industry—the students have built a house from start to finish each year. And it’s not just the students in the construction class who are involved in the process. According to Superintendent Paula Davis, “Our students enrolled in drafting create the house plans. Our Cisco networking students cable the house and make it computer-ready. Our landscaping and horticulture students do the design and installation of the landscaping for the house. Our graphic communications students are involved with developing the advertising to see the house. It’s a real team effort.”
According to Steve Huey, Pekin’s department chairperson for career and technical education, it is quite a significant project. Last year’s 2,100-square-foot, three-bedroom house appraised at more than $250,000. “When students start in the fall, there is a foundation in place. When they finish the school year, there is a completely finished home, including paint, carpeting and landscaping.”
In addition to the classes available at several high schools in the region, students who attend schools without construction programs can participate in a work-based learning program sponsored by P.E.R.F.E.C.T. in cooperation with TRICON and the unions. This award-winning program allows juniors and seniors to experience the trades more fully, with hands-on training in various construction careers.
“The programs that we offer regionally in work-based learning are not meant to replace any programs already in place at schools…We just want to give students opportunities that may not be available, either due to a small number of students that a program may affect or financial restrictions a school may have,” Sherwood explained. “The regional work-based learning programs are there to serve those students who could not otherwise be served by their own schools.”
Students learn about safety and the skills needed to succeed in the trades through hands-on training, classroom instruction and internships. Participating students must have exceptional attendance records, clean disciplinary records and at least a 2.0 grade point average on a 4.0 scale. Such requirements fall right in line with what apprenticeship coordinators are looking for in job applicants. Noting the problems that local unions have finding qualified applicants, Marty Helfers warns, “If you can’t get to school, don’t bother applying to an apprenticeship.” Programs like P.E.R.F.E.C.T.’s work-based learning program teach students that a good attitude and work ethic are just as important as mastering the skills required by the job.
Giving Youth a Second Chance
For those young men and women who have not received their high school diplomas but want to enter the skilled trades, a program funded by a Department of Labor grant may be just the thing. YouthBuild Peoria allows 18- to 24-year-olds to increase their basic skills while earning either their high school diploma or GED. It then helps young men and women “receive hands-on construction experience, both by working with the apprenticeship programs locally through the building trades, and also hands-on construction experience building an actual house,” according to Jennifer Brackney, division manager of City of Peoria Workforce Development.
The program’s goal is to provide these young men and women with the education and experience they need to get into an apprenticeship program, find livable-wage employment or continue on to post-secondary education. While the details are still being worked out, YouthBuild Peoria will involve a cooperation of several local organizations. TRICON and the West Central Building Trades will provide apprenticeship and OSHA safety training. Habitat for Humanity will offer on-site training by having participants help to build homes for low-income individuals and families. Brackney also noted that other groups will participate to ensure that the whole person is being served. If a participant needs counseling or help overcoming personal issues, for example, it will be provided as well.
Workforce Development is working to coordinate the participating groups and organizations and make sure that implementation is successful. By working with the local skilled trades and Habitat for Humanity, YouthBuild Peoria targets those who have not yet found the direction in which they want their professional lives to go. Those interested in pursuing a career in the skilled trades gain the opportunity they may have missed out on by not completing their high school education.
While the majority of participants are male, P.E.R.F.E.C.T., TRICON and the unions strive to reach out to young women and show them that they too can have fulfilling careers in the trades. TRICON co-sponsors an annual Women In Construction Day for young women in 9th and 10th grade. Through career information, speeches by women in the industry, hands-on activities and jobsite tours, the event promotes the construction industry as another career choice to consider.
Preventing a Skills Shortage
While there is not currently a surplus of jobs in the skilled trades, it’s anticipated that there will be a shortage within the next 10 to 15 years as baby boomers retire from the field in droves. “You can’t take a large percentage of your workforce, see them retire, and have a group of 20-year-olds come in and be able to replace them because they’re lacking experience at that time,” explained Sherwood. “So we need to start now to train students for the future.” But before training can happen, students must be exposed to the trades and understand that they are great careers that provide lifelong opportunities.
“If we get to them early enough,” added Steve Boswell, training director of the local electricians apprentice school, “we can stress focusing on academics at school.” Doing well in school and developing a strong work ethic and positive attitude is great preparation for work in the skilled trades—and everyone benefits from this.
Teachers and educators benefit because when classes “make sense,” as they do when the authentic learning style is used, students are more likely to show interest and pay attention in class. Employers benefit because the quality of their apprenticeship applicants increases dramatically when students develop the necessary skills early on. Parents benefit because students are given better direction in terms of what careers they can pursue after high school—and whether that four-year degree is really what’s best for them. The community benefits because students who join the skilled trades become productive workers who then contribute to the tax base.
With the many programs in central Illinois that introduce students to the skilled trades, the region is positioning itself to maintain the necessary numbers of skilled tradespeople to carry out the work that needs to be done here. It is the collaboration among local schools, nonprofit groups and labor unions that keeps our community as strong as it is. As Sherwood said, “Without the partnership with the union construction industry in our area, what we do would be absolutely impossible. They are very dedicated to the education of our youth.” iBi