RC3 will consist of five career academies — Culinary Arts and Hospitality, Cyber Innovation, Fire and Emergency Services, Health Sciences and Skilled Trades.
(Jason Gaston photo)
As students in the Birmingham suburb of Hoover, Ala., look ahead to the new school year, some are preparing for a unique opportunity that takes them out of the traditional classroom. The new Skilled Trades Academy debuts in August at the Riverchase Career Connection Center (RC3).
"The Skilled Trades Academy has many different career choices that I could possibly enjoy, but the one that really caught my eye is HVAC," said 17-year-old Darrien "DC" Lockhart. "I have some experience in engineering, as I was in the engineering academy at Spain Park High School for two years."
As he begins his senior year, Lockhart is looking forward to the change in his education routine.
"I feel like the Skilled Trades Academy and being enrolled in RC3 itself will be a different learning experience," he said. "With this skill, I hope to start my own company, or at least work for a company while in college. Hopefully it will give me the time I need to get through school, while also giving me the money."
Not all students, however, choose to earn a four-year degree.
According to Ron Dodson, director of RC3, "Our suburban school district has been primarily focused on sending students to college, and we're good at doing that. Ninety percent of our graduates are accepted into college, but the times are changing. There was a recognition in our community a few years ago that we needed to do more to support both college and career readiness. RC3 will consist of five career academies — Culinary Arts and Hospitality, Cyber Innovation, Fire and Emergency Services, Health Sciences and Skilled Trades."
Dodson said now is the ideal time to start the program.
"Demand for highly skilled workers is very high, and students recognize the opportunities that are within reach today if you are willing to show up to work on time, work hard and be safe.
There are 750 students who have signed up for RC3 next year, and 115 have chosen the Skilled Trades Academy. They come from Hoover High School, Spain Park High School and Homewood High School. About 95 percent are from the Hoover school system.
"With so many tradesmen reaching retirement age, companies are not able to replace these workers as quickly as they need to," Dodson said. "That is obviously a driving force for the shortage of workers today, and the rise in wages for those who are working."
As for income potential, Dodson said it all depends on how hard students are willing to work. "There's a great shortage of skilled workers today, so there are many opportunities to work in a variety of settings, and those opportunities include travel and overtime options. We are also offering personal finance and entrepreneurship classes to help our young workers make wise financial decisions, and to be prepared in the future to run their own business if they have the opportunity."
Students will attend classes in two shifts, morning and afternoon. They will take part in their base high school for the other half of the school day. For the entire program, the population is almost 50/50 male and female.
"There are a small number of females in the first class of the Skilled Trades Academy," Dodson stated. "We hope they will be pioneers and show others that they can be successful in this program."
In order to enroll, students must apply and be interviewed. However, to date, any student who commits to the expectations for safety, attendance and work-readiness behaviors has been accepted. As RC3's director, Dodson serves as the school's administrator and oversees all employees and students on campus.
"This project has been in the works for two years, and I'm very excited to be nearing the end of preparations and getting the school started," Dodson said. "The Skilled Trades Academy in particular is of interest to me, because I know our students have needed this kind of program for a long time. It's great to see it actually happening now.
"The Skilled Trades Academy will follow the NCCER curriculum and will include a rotation of guest instructors who are workers for our industry partners. We believe it's important for students to have regular contact with people who are doing these jobs today."
The first-year course follows the NCCER Core curriculum, which means that students must first complete OSHA 10 certification before experiencing projects in carpentry, electrical, HVAC and welding. Students will then move on to more specialized NCCER Level 1 training in the area of their choice during the second year of the program.
"Mr. Brian Copes is our lead teacher for the Skilled Trades Academy," Dodson said. "He is an experienced carpenter who has also been an industrial arts and engineering teacher for a number of years. Mr. Copes has assembled an advisory board consisting of local business and industry partners who have committed to significant involvement in the development of this program."
As for students' future plans, Dodson said the district is seeing more students pass on college, but their reasons are usually financial.
"The costs for college increase every year, and student loan debt is now the second highest source of debt in American households. I think experience in the skilled trades is just as important for those who decide to go to college as it is for those who don't. An engineer who has practical experience as an electrician or welder is a more valuable engineer."
Dodson believes the economy is beginning to shape how people view vocational and technical education.
"Five years ago, the response I heard from many parents was that this was a great idea for someone else's child," he said. "Today, it is a different story. To keep vocational education relevant, we have to keep industry involved, and listen to their guidance. If they are not eager to hire our students, then we are going astray."
The Alabama chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) plays a key role in the new program. "Bill Caton from AGC and representative member company leaders have been a huge support to us, and I believe they will stick with us for the long haul," Dodson said. "They helped design the space, they helped design the curriculum and they have committed to provide equipment and guest instructors to support the program."
Alabama AGC, founded in 1920, is the state's oldest and largest non-residential construction trade association, with 1,000 members and $100 million in assets in affiliated companies. Caton, who serves as the organization's chief operating officer, is looking forward to being a part of the Skilled Trades Academy.
"This is an exciting concept that will allow the students to learn about the construction trades in a simulated work environment," Caton said. "Teachers will be from industry and will offer practical insight on how to perform the complex tasks that are required to build all non-residential construction. Hoover and the trade industry have made a commitment to create the best possible learning environment for these students. It's an unparalleled investment in the lives of these students. AGC has been involved from the beginning, helping coordinate industry efforts and providing significant financial assistance."
According to Caton, AGC is buying educational equipment and involving contractors such as Brasfield & Gorrie, Marathon Electrical and Hardy, as well as helping to identify teachers.
"AGC is involved in every aspect of the project," Caton stated. "Our contractors will be offering assistance from providing materials to internships and ultimately full-time jobs and careers. AGC will be organizing and promoting all aspects of the program, including connecting students with employers.
"It's important for the non-residential construction industry to be directly involved in craft education. Building commercial buildings, highways and utilities is complex work, and it requires highly skilled craftsmen. There is tremendous need for skilled craftspeople for all trades. The Alabama AGC is directly involved in the project, but it also is working to bring in other industry partners, such as Go Build Alabama to help recruit students, and the Craft Training Board to help provide additional long-term funding."
According to AGC officials, the pay for Alabama construction workers averages $50,500 — 15 percent more than all private sector employers in the state. In 2016, construction wages and salaries totaled $4 billion in the state.
"The construction industry is dynamic and high-paying," Caton said. "The opportunity to do challenging work and literally see what you have accomplished is extremely appealing in a career. The facility is first-class and will provide an excellent learning environment. Space matters, and Hoover and the industry have created a magnificent learning environment. One look-around and a student will know that the trades and the education are treated with respect."
Caton said it's crucial for students to experience real-world situations at an early age, especially if they are seriously considering a career in construction.
"It's a time-honored idea that students hear from people who have done the job. Include hands-on experience led by craftsmen and it's a homerun. Also, soft skills are a key component to a high school education. Learning to be on time and be prepared to work when the day begins are crucial to success. Learning to respect the job and understanding that respect is earned is also critical."
Caton said the learning environment is ideal for those enrolled in the program. "The space is open and modern," he declared. "Complex projects will be in the open for all students to see. Students will work with everything from hammers and saws to virtual reality. It will be a high-ceilinged, spacious and inviting place where students feel appreciated and can learn to appreciate the skills that will become a career."
Spain Park High School incoming sophomore Connor Elrod, 16, isn't certain what career path he'll take, but his mother encouraged him to enroll in the Skilled Trades Academy.
"She has talked to me about going to college, and that is my plan, but she has told me how important it is to have something extra, like a skill," Elrod said. "I will always be able to do things for myself, or even have these skills as a job or something on the side. I know these types of skills will always be needed in the world."
Elrod is interested in construction to learn how things are built and designed, as well as the work that goes into executing complex plans. In addition, he said that both welding has caught his eye and the HVAC portion of a course he's looking to take. "I am drawn to anything that I can use my hands for and physically do," Elrod said.
As for future goals, "I hope to go to college playing football," Elrod said. "I'm not sure yet what I would like to do — engineering, business, sales, etc., because I'm interested in a lot of things. I do hope I can learn several trades to always have that knowledge, and always be able to do something or either make one or a few of those my career or own business."
For Dodson, the Skilled Trades Academy is about giving students options.
"We won't get everything right the first year, as this is a new adventure for a suburban school district like ours, but we are committed to getting this right for the sake of kids and our community for the long haul," he said. "This is about adapting to the needs of today and tomorrow instead of being stuck in the patterns of the past. We can and will do better, and this year marks a significant step forward in that journey." CEG