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Building Foundations: Industrial Tech Students Are Union and Career Ready

Building Foundations: Industrial Tech Students Are Union and Career Ready 

Before After of Concession StandBy: Nancy Cambria,
Director of Communications 

When he started his sophomore year at University City High School, Da’Shaun Calicutt knew that college was not for him. It was a confusing time as he went to school uncertain about why he was there and his future. 

He knew he liked doing things with his hands. He liked putting his hands and mind to a task, “grinding it out,” and seeing it through to a final product. Then, the high school’s Counseling Office connected him with Career and Technology Education (CTE) teacher Stephen Wurst. Wurst, who is also a journeyman cabinetmaker, assured him that there was a strong pathway to a stable and well-paying career for him right out of high school. 

Calicutt graduated from University City High School in January. In late February, he began an intensive, three-week pre-apprentice program at the St. Louis Carpenters Union Training Center. 

“If they can get through that three-week course, they will get a guaranteed apprentice job with a large union construction company with full benefits and salaries,” Wurst said of his students. “They need carpenters so badly, they are just feeding these kids right into the industry.”

Equitable Access to Lucrative Careers

Construction Career Development Initiative's Construction Academy crewTrade unions nationwide have a shortage of skilled workers at a time when infrastructure needs repair, new housing construction and rehabilitation of properties are on the rise, and industries like tech are needing state-of-the-art facilities. In response, trade unions are doing extensive outreach with students and teachers to recruit directly out of high school.

In St. Louis, one construction company has gone a step further. In the aftermath of the death of high school student Michael Brown in Ferguson, Bob Clark, the owner of Clayco construction and a native of north St. Louis County, focused on bringing underrepresented youth into construction trades and trade unions. What resulted was the creation of the Construction Career Development Initiative (CCDI), which equitably connects high school students from mostly urban districts with union carpenters, electricians and other trade artisans, while also introducing them to the basics of the construction industry. 

Calicutt, along with fellow students from the Construction Technology class, and their parents, attended a weekend Construction Academy with CCDI where they listened to industry professionals talk about their union careers. Students also went on tours of area construction projects. And, they got a flavor of what it was like to work for a big construction company. It was an eye-opener, from the $17-an-hour starting apprentice salary down to the employee gym open to all Clayco employees. 

But there was something more about the day that stuck with Calicutt.

“The vice president of the company was up there, and she was speaking with us. She was telling us the difference between power and authority, and influence. You can have authority and power, but it really doesn’t matter unless you have the influence to do something. She made a statement about if we had siblings. Well, I’m the oldest sibling. I might not have authority or the power over them but I can influence them to do things for their futures.” 

Building Community and Careers in University City

The Clayco program is just one aspect of exciting employment, union and community connections being made through the high school’s CTE program. Students in the Construction Technology class have further embarked on a partnership with the University City-based nonprofit organization SHED, which stands for Sustainable Housing and Equitable Development. SHED connects volunteers with University City homeowners who need help with home improvements or maintenance to keep their houses in compliance with city codes. The work mostly takes place in the city’s Third Ward, where some residents are unable to maintain their older homes in need of repairs. University City High School students have been active members, helping with exterior improvements such as painting, landscaping, and general outside carpentry repairs. 

But, in the new partnership, Construction Technology students will work with skilled union tradesmen and women to take on more complex repairs utilizing construction terms and techniques learned in their classes. This spring, students will help a University City homeowner with her unsafe back deck. With the help of partnering skilled workers, the students will demolish the old deck and build a completely new one for the resident, who just so happens to be a University City High School graduate. 

“We are doing something that nobody else in St. Louis is doing,” Wurst said. “Our students are learning high-paying employment skills with professionals while also helping residents in their community.” 

The District is also exploring a carpentry apprenticeship program so that students in Wurst’s classes and working on SHED job sites can earn-to-learn for a Department of Labor Apprentice Certificate in carpentry.

Jim Clarkin, a St. Louis-based union carpenter who trains apprentices, said the first year in any trade job is tough. But for those who make it through that year, the career is life-changing. 

“They can always find work. They can always do something. If everything else tanks, they still have a trade that they can go back to,” Clarkin said. “If you’re a carpenter, or in any trade, you have a skill. You can take that skill any place you want to go. You can take that anywhere in the country. You can take that anywhere in the world.” 

Lest one worry that the students are in over their heads, students study nationally certified training modules and have experiences in the high school that ensure the students have basic demolition, design, welding and woodworking skills. Forget the traditional book holder and cutting board projects (though beginner students build them, too). Over the past two years, the students completely demolished and properly disposed of a decaying storage shed in the high school’s Lions’ Den, a new student outdoor courtyard. They went on to design and build from scratch a complete concession stand for events held at the school. The process included laying a foundation and base, framing the structure, installing the walls and raising the roof, and then shingling the roof. Next up: gutters and rain barrels to help collect and water the courtyard’s garden planters, also constructed by students.

“Everyone was working together. It was a lot of teamwork,” Calicutt said about the concession stand. “It was like nobody was working by themselves. We were doing it together.”

Learning Reimagined

The Construction Technology program is just one of many designed under the District’s vision of Learning Reimagined in which students are college and career ready with equitable opportunities for modern, rigorous and relevant instruction and clear pathways into skilled jobs. Other district career pathways lead to health, engineering and computer programming connections that also lead to internships, trade school and future jobs.

“Schools have to be more than just feeders to college for those who qualify or can afford it,” said Superintendent Sharonica Hardin-Bartley. “Schools must ensure that students have a vision and a way to build wealth and capital that takes them far beyond the working poor and into well-paying careers for life.” Even for students who are planning to attend college, new pathways to higher education are emerging. 

Susan Hill, the District’s coordinator of PreK-12 social studies, college and career education and CTE, said career pathways also lead to a college education down the line.

“Students need multiple entry and exit points when it comes to their postsecondary education. Many employers are moving to a model of apprenticeship where they are hiring students with accelerated training and then compensating them to seek higher education so they can skill-up over the course of their careers.”

By late February, Calicutt was into his first week of the pre-apprenticeship program. It was challenging, but something he was prepared to do. He thinks he will specialize in carpentry. 

“I’ve been waiting just to graduate so I can start my career and do things,” he said. “I like working with wood. I can do carpentry for now. And I can start influencing people.”

Building of UCHS Concession Stand