Schools Beginning to Steer Curriculum Toward Construction

Originally published by: Journal of Light ConstructionMarch 10, 2016

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I just got an invitation for my 45th high school class reunion. That sobering number got me thinking about the whole “caste system” that existed in high school programs back then. I was in what was called a “College Prep” curriculum, and the other side of the coin was “Industrial Arts,” where future mechanics, carpenters, and tradespeople went, ostensibly because they couldn’t cut the college-prep mustard. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my high school classes, but five years after getting an undergraduate degree, I found myself with a hammer in my hand, wondering how much ahead of the game I would have been if I’d opted for a different track in high school.

Fast forward 4 1/2 decades and I still ponder that choice I made so long ago. I’m not sure how good the carpentry-education department was at my high school, so it’s hard to say. But I now find myself living a stone’s throw from Cape Cod Tech, a well-respected, top-notch technical high school that teaches everything from culinary arts and auto mechanics to engineering, IT, and the home-building trades. Yesterday I attended a job-fair at the school and was really impressed with what I saw and heard.

Ann Sweck, HR person from Whiteley Plumbing and Heating in West Chatham, MA, interviews a student at a job fair at Cape Cod Technical High School. Sweck said that students come to work for the summers and end up staying with the company long term.

Among the potential employers from the building trades, I talked with building companies, plumbing companies, and building supply companies. Ann Sweck, HR person for W. Vernon Whiteley, a local plumbing and HVAC company, said that they had a number of CC Tech students working for them. “They come to work in the summers and end up staying with the company,” Sweck told me. She also said that the skill level of the students coming out of the school is very high. “These kids are trained in the very latest technologies in the industry. They end up bringing some of our seasoned employees up to date on some of these things. The give and take is tremendous to watch.”

When I visited the table of Polhemus, Savery and DeSilva, an architectural design and building firm, project manager Ray Tourville was speaking with Ryan Peterson, a junior in the carpentry program. Ryan had spent the last two summers working on a framing crew. PSD was looking for students to place on its building crews, but also to work in its architecture office. Tourville said that the company had had two CC Tech students working as architecture assistants in the past couple of years and spoke very highly of the training that the students brought to the job.

Interestingly, many of the students I spoke with were planning to take their specialized schooling to the college level. Junior Drew Silva, who attended the job fair in a jacket and tie, said that finish carpentry and furniture making were his biggest interests, and that he was considering applying to the North Bennet Street School. Trevor Thompson from the engineering program said that he planned to apply to Worcester Poly Tech. And Senior Terri Hibbert said that although framing was her favorite part of carpentry, she was going to attend UMass Dartmouth in the teaching curriculum. Her goal was to teach at a technical high school, paying it forward for other students like herself.

I also spoke with folks from local building supply houses. Barbara Lennon, HR person from MidCape Home Centers, said that tech students bring a basic knowledge of building with them that gives them a leg up in contractor sales or for going out in the field to price a job.

Brent Warren, a carpentry instructor, told me about the co-op program that the school offers. Second-trimester juniors who have the academic qualifications are given the opportunity to work two weeks per month on actual crews. For the students this means working for pay while learning from full-time workers in their given field.

You can’t open a trade journal or website from someone in the building industry these days without hearing about the shortage of skilled workers. It was heartening to see the enthusiasm of these highly-trained students as well as contractors eager to include that skill and enthusiasm on their crews. It doesn’t solve the problem entirely, but it is a wonderful first step.