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Students and grads are bringing attention to Rolla trades program

 Senior Ren Vance in Rolla's construction class works on framing new classrooms and loft space at the Rolla Technical Center.
Jonathan Ahl
St. Louis Public Radio
Senior Ren Vance works on framing new classrooms and loft space at the Rolla Technical Institute/Center.

The Rolla school district is in the middle of a major construction program, with some of the work being completed by high school students in the district's vocational training program alongside recent graduates.

The construction is a $25 million project that features additions and renovations to four different schools. That includes the construction class framing two new classrooms and loft space in the Rolla Technical Institute/Center, the building that holds the district's vocational training.

“I think it’s pretty nice. It’s another kind of learning experience because you’re making it better for kids in the future, too,” said senior Alex Silch.

Getting hands-on experience is at the core of vocational education, and this kind of work that benefits the school’s construction project also helps students enter the job market.

Senior Ren Vance joined the carpenters union as an apprentice earlier this year, and his summer job was the kind of work he wants to do after graduation.

“I framed a couple houses, and did a little bit of concrete and trim work. I did some commercial work up in Kirkwood, working on apartment buildings. That’s probably the biggest one I did,” Vance said.

In addition to students working on the project, recent graduates employed by local contractors also find themselves improving their former schools. Muluken Pritchett graduated two years ago and now works as a bricklayer for Stovall Masonry.

He was part of the crew that worked on the center’s addition.

 Rolla graduate Muluken Pritchett stands in front of the wall he laid the bricks for at the Rolla Technical Center.
Jonathan Ahl
St. Louis Public Radio
Rolla High School graduate Muluken Pritchett stands in front of the wall he laid the bricks for at the Rolla Technical Institute/Center.

“It was fun. I got to see what I can do. Some of the students came down to watch me lay some of the block and brick here and see what they can do when they get out of school,” Pritchett said.

Pritchett said school just wasn’t for him, even though his father is the principal of the high school. It opened his eyes to new opportunities when he started taking classes in construction and masonry, and he found how much he liked working with his hands.

The combination of students and recent graduates working on the district’s first building project in many years is bringing more attention to Rolla’s vocational program.

There are more than 560 students enrolled in vocational classes, compared to 360 in advanced placement college prep courses.

Rick Pilkenton, the masonry instructor at the center, said college is great but isn't for everyone, and schools need to give kids an option, one that he says is very promising for students like Pritchett.

“Here he is, learned a trade in class here, and here he is working on our building making $49 an hour. I think that’s a huge turning point for education to realize that a skilled trade is definitely an option other than a four-year college,” Pilkenton said.

There is also a more direct link between trade schools and the needs of employers than there might be for college-bound students. Corey Stovall, Pritchett’s boss, regularly comes by the school to talk about the skills students need to get one of those $49-an-hour jobs after high school.

“The latest time it was about certain types of block cuts and things like that that I hadn’t even thought about to teach these kids,” Pilkenton said. “I’ll change my way of teaching and add that to my curriculum, and it will help them out in the field.”

Those students are in demand, and that need will grow. According to a study from the International Journal of Environmental Research and Medicine, the average age of construction workers is increasing. It went from 36 to 43 between 1985 and 2015.

The delays in construction in the current housing boom is also a sign that skilled workers are badly needed.

“The people who are going through trade schools right now and coming out, they are going to find jobs relatively easily because everyone in the trade industry is hiring right now,” Stovall said. “And you’re going to be guaranteed a $20-$30 an hour job at a minimum. And that’s lowballing it. My guys make $50 an hour.”

In the meantime, students in Rolla are able to get a taste of what those jobs are like while they are working to improve their schools.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl

Jonathan is the Rolla correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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