Motivating High School Students to Become Future Builders

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In 2007, I met Tanya Parker, now the publisher of the local magazine, Unity in Action, at a demonstration in front of the County Court House in Urbana.  We were both protesting what we felt was racial inequality in the criminal justice system.  Tanya had been working with young African American females, attempting to raise their self-confidence and aspirations.  I had for many years been a delegate to the AFL-CIO of Champaign County where I could not help notice the paucity of minorities and women among the building trade delegates.  I had been pondering in my own mind of how the trades could be diversified.  I raised the issue in my conversation with Tanya, and we agreed to work together on a project to bring this about.

We began by contacting school administrators, school board members, and the then-principal of Urbana High School, Laura Taylor to simply urge them to put a greater focus on vocational education in the schools.  We heard lots of reasons why they could not do that, ranging from budget constraints, to resistance from a community that is so academically-oriented, to the conservatism of school board members, to the lack of availability of teachers in vocational education.  We were also concerned that our efforts not be seen as advocacy of “tracking,” particularly of minority students.  We wanted students to be aware of opportunities in the building trades and pick up some of the skills, but to graduate from high school meeting all of the requirements that would be necessary to go on to higher education if that were to be their choice.

While Principal Taylor made clear that given the tight budget she was not prepared to sacrifice some other courses for more vocational education, she did provide us with a breakthrough.  She suggested that we contact Sean McLaughlin, the director of a multi-county agency called Education for Employment Service (EFE).  Neither Tanya nor I had heard of the EFE before.  We called Sean, told him about our interest in expanded vocational education in the building trades, and asked for a meeting with him.  After discussing possibilities over coffee in Strawberry Fields, Sean proposed trying to get a summer program started.  His staffer at EFE, Lorie McDonald was equally keen to get a program off the ground. She would become the major point-person in the actual administration of the program.  Fortunately, Champaign’s Unit 4 School District had just hired a new industrial arts teacher, Alex Ramirez, who agreed to be the major instructor in the program.  Each year, Alex would have another instructor who would help him out, normally an industrial arts teacher from Rantoul High School, but last year from Villa
Grove High School.

The program required community partnerships.  Financial, educational, and in-kind support came from the high schools in the twin cities and Rantoul, the University of Illinois, and from Parkland College.  The city of Urbana offered a financial grant.  Specialized instructional and in-kind contributions (in the form of materials) came from local unions of electricians, plumbers and pipefitters, bricklayers, roofers, and cement masons and plasterers.  Local developers also assisted.  United Way, Habitat for Humanity, and the Community Foundation of East Central Illinois also partnered with the program.

The first project, in 2008, consisted of building a storage shed right on the grounds of Champaign Central High School.  Projects from 2009 to 2011 were structures, usually garages, that were built for private parties who were willing to pay for the materials.  But then there was a certain unease with the lack of criteria of who would get this free labor. It was thus decided to work on projects selected by Habitat for Humanity.  The summer 2012 project was a cooperative one with Habitat, and there is some possibility that for the first time there will be two Habitat houses on which the young people will work.

From its inception, through 2012, there have been seventy-four student participants.  The vast majority are in their junior years.  EFE first puts out a call for applications in early Spring.  These applications are screened, and those who make the screening are then called for interviews.  Attendance, disciplinary records, and grade point averages are taken into account for someone to be called for an interview.  In 2012, there were 40 applicants, of whom 30 were selected to be interviewed, half of whom (15) were accepted into the program.  Some of the other 15 who were not accepted would have been had there been a second house to work on last year.  But it was determined that going beyond 15 would make the program less effective instructionally.

Of the 74 students who have completed the program thus far, 56% were minorities, 5% were female, and 58% were from low income families.   Of the minority students, 71% were African American, 22% were Latino/Hispanic, 5% were East Asian, and 2% were Indian (South Asian).

The education and skills that the students learn, aside from the hands-on construction tasks like diving nails, were: applied mathematics, communication, blue print reading,familiarization with the different building materials, the basics of electricity, copper piping and fitting, electricity basics, flooring systems, and exterior finishing.

The students are also educated in the nature of careers in the different building trades, and in what it takes to be a successfully employed person, i.e, reliability, promptness, ability to work cooperatively in a team, and serious application to the task.  Students who successfully complete the program receive two tangible rewards, a $500 stipend and OSHA certification.  The latter is because they also receive training in workplace safety by a certified OSHA instructor, provided free of cost by the Bricklayers and Tilesetters Local #8.  Should students choose to apply to an apprenticeship program in a trade union, OSHA certification might give them an advantage.

I do not know how many, if any, of the students who have gone through the five-week summer program have actually applied for such an apprenticeship. In an exit questionnaire given to the 2012 class, 9 said they would consider applying for such an apprenticeship.  Four said no, and one said maybe.  When asked if they had decided to pursue additional training in construction or the various building trades, 13 said maybe, 1 said yes, and none said no.

But even if these young people do not enter the building trade unions, this experience in making something concrete, in learning how to work with others in a cooperative and disciplined way, and in bringing home a paycheck based on the sweat of their labor should be of service to them whatever occupational paths they may choose in the future.  While it cannot be presumed that the program is solely responsible, it is interesting that the 97% graduation rate of students who have gone through it is considerably higher than that of the total eligible student bodies in any of the high schools in Champaign, Urbana, and Rantoul.

If the reader of this article is either a high school student or knows of high school students in Champaign-Urbana or Rantoul, especially minority or female students, who might benefit from this program, I urge you to contact Lorie McDonald at the Education For Employment System, 3 Henson Place, Champaign, tel: (217) 355-1382.

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