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Students drawn to skilled trades

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Students drawn to skilled trades

They didn’t look like typical high-school students, wearing hard hats, yellow safety glasses and leather tool belts as they headed off to build houses for Habitat for Humanity.

“I’ve always wanted to be a carpenter,” said Dalaedria James, 17, whose helmet was tucked under her fur-lined coat hood. “Ever since I was little, I just always liked building stuff.”

While many college graduates are having difficulty finding jobs in their fields and paying off college loans, these Columbus City Schools juniors and seniors are working on real construction jobs, and some are getting paid about $500 a week for it, as part of a pilot program that is in its second year. These dozen students, such as senior Demetrius Latham, 17, alternate between attending school for a week and working a 40-hour job the next week at $12.50 an hour.

If they can land construction jobs, they stand to be making more than $50,000 a year, plus full benefits, in around five years — as carpenters, masons, welders and in other trades. And with no college debt.

“That’s the idea, so that they can gain full-time employment and hopefully make a living wage,” said Jim Negron, executive vice president of Columbus construction firm Corna

Kokosing, one of eight construction firms participating in the district’s paid job-skills program.

With a wave of retirements looming in the trades, there is a gap of qualified applicants to replace them, Negron said. The odds of job openings are improving each year.

“For a long time, the trades were frowned upon,” Negron said. “There was this push for everybody to go to college, and the nobility of working with your hands was diminished in our society.”

There is “this huge labor shortage in our industry, and of course there’s a gap of kids even interested in getting into the trades, so we have to get more involved and engaged.”

The Columbus school district is experiencing double-digit percentage growth in enrollment at its Fort Hayes Career Center, said Pegeen Cleary Potts, executive director of career-technical education. The district has about 40 students each in its carpentry and masonry programs; 25 in welding; 45 in heating, ventilating and air-conditioning; and 34 in landscaping.

A lot of the students say they stumbled into the program.

Donald Culpepper, 18, a senior from Briggs High School, was on a field trip to the career center when he watched students building things, he said.

“I was like, I like to do hands-on stuff,” Culpepper said. “I like building.”

He applied to the two-year carpentry program thinking he could use the skills to do odd jobs around the house, he said, but now he’s considering it as a career.

“Some students have never put their hands on a tool before coming into the program,” said Bryant Hall, the carpentry instructor, standing near rows of storage-shed frames that his students constructed. “Sometimes, we don’t even have students who can read a tape measure, quite literally.

“To me, what’s more important is their interest and their seriousness about it, and hopefully their desire to get into the construction industry.”

There was a time when the “vocational education” kids were those who weren’t going to make it in school and had no chance of going to college, “but I think we’re slowly turning the tide on that,” said Lauren Gardiner, supervisor of the career center.

“The reality is kids are coming out of college investing a massive amount of money, huge amounts of debt, and are walking into low-paying jobs, when this is something they would have been interested in if somebody had only shown them the path,” Gardiner said.

And a high percentage of career-center students go on to two- or four-year college programs, Cleary Potts said.

If you have the requisite skills, “the unions are extremely short right now,” said Adam Viney, a bricklaying and concrete-systems instructor. “The amount of people who are actually retiring vs. the (lesser) amount of people who are coming in is staggering.”

Starting pay is $13 to $15 an hour, plus benefits, Viney said.

But many Columbus students lack a car or a driver’s license, Viney pointed out. Without those, landing a good construction job is tough.

Still, construction jobs can’t be sent abroad, as manufacturing jobs can.

“It’s not something you can export,” Negron said. “You can’t do that overseas. It’s things that you will do here.”

The district will hold a career fair at Fort Hayes from 5 to 7 p.m. Jan. 26 for anyone interested in learning about construction training. @ReporterBush

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