EDWARDSVILLE — A new program that gives high school students hands-on experience with the construction trades kicked off this year.
Over two years, juniors and seniors from local high schools will learn to pour concrete, install pipes, construct scaffolding and other aspects of the trades from certified labor instructors through the Illinois Laborers' and Contractors Joint Apprenticeship and Training Program.
The program started in Marion, Illinois, last year and expanded to Edwardsville after labor leaders saw its success. It’s part of a larger push from local labor organizations to attract younger people to unions.
The average age of construction labor apprentices in downstate Illinois is 37, said Vicky McElroy, the apprenticeship coordinator at the Edwardsville training facility.
“We thought this was a way to get some good students and young people into the trades,” she said.
Sixteen juniors from Edwardsville High School make up this year’s inaugural class. The students go to the training facility for two hours every morning for a mix of classroom training and hands-on courses.
It’s new territory for the training center’s instructors, who are used to older apprentices.
“In some ways it’s a very big advantage,” said Jason Jackson, one of the course instructors. “If I’m teaching them math or labor history or anything like that, I can actually send them home with homework.”
He acknowledges there are challenges, too. One of those is managing a room full of teenagers, he said, and another is fitting hands-on activities, like pouring concrete, into the two-hour course blocks.
The program’s home in a labor training center gives the students an opportunity to observe and engage with the trades. Halfway through one morning, the class watched some of the center’s apprentices pour a concrete pad.
Simply watching that process energized the students about their futures, Jackson said.
“I think I spent 10 minutes when we came back into the classroom just answering questions about what working in this career would be like,” he said.
Most of the students are excited by the potential of what they can learn through the program.
“I’m really interested in a lot of the concrete work,” Christopher Smith said. The 16-year-old already does some heating, cooling and electrical work and said he wants to add more skills.
“I’m more interested in becoming an agriculture teacher,” he said. “But I see being more versatile as worth a little bit more if the teaching career doesn’t go the way I want it to.”
Joseph Arana, 16, also sees how he can apply skills from this program in the future. He already helps maintain the few apartment complexes his father owns, he said.
“With this program, I can do better with rebuilding them,” he said. “So my plan is to take over his company someday and try to build off that.”
Beyond trade skills, students also earn high school credit and half the credits toward an associate degree at Southwestern Illinois College. That’s altered Arana’s view of college.
“At first I didn’t really want to do college,” he said, “But since I’m getting college credits, I actually want to go and finish it out.”
Or students can choose to finish a traditional apprenticeship with the facility.
“By the time they complete the program, they’re going to be at least 85% complete of our regular apprenticeship program,” McElroy said. “They’re getting a big head start on everybody else.”
The current students could start working in a local union almost immediately after graduating high school, she said.
Just three weeks into its first year in Edwardsville, there’s already interest in the program’s next year from four other high schools, McElroy said.
“It’s just going to keep growing and growing,” she said.
McElroy and her colleagues at the Edwardsville training facility hope that will mean more young people entering the trades.
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