SAVOY – Minutes after seeing 20-year-old professional Justin McMullen soldering, throttling and clamping a pipe joint with a ProPress, 14 local high school students donned protective gloves and goggles, grabbed a blowtorch and tried it for themselves.
First up: the solder.
“Half moon, half moon, keep the fire going,” McMullen told high school student Anneliese Schideman, referring to the shape she would have to create with the molten metal. A minute later, he showed her ready joint to the class.
“My first was a little bad, but it got better. It’s tied together, which is good,” said Schideman. “It’s very practical and I like doing it that way. I’d rather do it with my hands than in class.”
Welcome to one of the first demonstration days for Parkland College’s construction trade program, a year-long introductory program that shows the tools and tricks of common craft to interested high school students.
The build path is the latest of the Early College Career Academy’s nine dual-credit programs, which include classes in automotive services, computer networking and programming, and emergency medical services, among others.
Students from 14 local districts spend their first few hours of the day, from approximately 7:30 am to 9:30 am, in a mix of specialized curricula and hands-on work with industry professionals.
After a few days of classroom instruction, late last month the novices stopped by UA Local 149 in Savoy, the local officials of the plumbers and pipe fitters’ union, to put new knowledge to the test under professional supervision.
Next week: a stop at UI Facilities and Services.
Some of these kids are determined to start careers in the trade: Paxton-Buckley-Loda junior Keaton Garren wants to be an electrician; St. Joseph-Ogden senior Chase Chapman wants to become a plumber after working on PVC pipes in swimming pools.
Others use this as a litmus test.
“When I get in, I had no experience at all,” said Emma Wurl, the Central’s senior senior. “My grandfather and uncle are both electricians so I wanted to try that. I thought bartering would be a good thing for me to try.”
Whatever the juniors and seniors decide to do, it’s a victory in the eyes of the academy’s instructors. Students can use the OSHA 30 certificate they earn at the end of the year for professional experience or use the college credit to earn an associate degree or beyond.
“It gives them that other outlet because when you talk to a college counselor, they’re just telling you that you need to go to college,” McMullen said. “This gives hands-on knowledge of what you can do differently.”
The building program’s teaching methodology — which includes off-campus, professional instruction two days a week — provides a unique feedback process that none of the supervisors had when they first came into the company.
“Some of this is intimidating,” said principal Dustin Stuart, a construction worker, remodeler and part-time Parkland instructor in construction management. “I was talking to a student and he was next in line to hold the 1000-degree blowtorch, and I was like, ‘Hey man, are you scared? He says, ‘Yeah.’ And I was like, ‘Dude, you’re going to do this, and you’re going to feel so good when you’re done.’”
Stuart has been teaching the crafts in Parkland since 2018. He said he loves the “ah ha” moment on students’ faces when they master a new technique.
However, this is his first year teaching high school students, and he is noticing another level of manufacturability and open-mindedness.
“What I get is really good engagement; eye contact, good answers to my questions,” said Stuart.
“Colleague children have that too, but with these children I get a spark that I’m not used to.”
It’s a long way from Stuart’s start in the industry. With few YouTube tutorials or professional connections to talk about, he checked out bookstore tutorials to learn remodeling techniques.
“I would go home, read the book, try to do it, see a show on television, try to do it, fail miserably and learn from it, and slowly, slowly, slowly, acquire knowledge over time.” he said. . “It wasn’t until I started pursuing it professionally that the snowball really started rolling.”
The program costs $2,000 per student, which covers about half of the schools entirely for themselves, said Nick Elder, supervisor of the Early College Career Academy. Four days later, the students already had hands-on time to learn the industry’s key maneuvers, as well as the business cards of employees with decades of experience.
Stuart twists a popular proverb to sum up the humiliating process of learning a trade.
“It’s not enough to just teach someone to fish and tell them to go fishing,” Stuart said. “We need to empower and nurture them and put them in a position where they can go fishing.”
That means a safe environment with both physical protection and a non-judgemental attitude, where mistakes are just steps in the learning process.
“All these students can now go home and do some plumbing work,” Stuart said. “I’m not going to say it’s going to be very good, but they can take this home right now. Even if these students decide not to want this at all for the next 16 weeks, it’s still a win in my eyes, because now they know.”
As he prepared his pipe for a solder, Garren succinctly summed up his experience.
“I came here expecting to learn a lot of things, and I learned a lot of things,” he said. “I had zero experience doing this. I’ve learned a lot in the last two days we’ve been here. It’s a lot of fun.”