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Pounding, Assembling, Constructing a Possible Future

Fifth-Graders Explore STEM-related Fields


When it comes to starting early in career exploration, Kentwood elementary students are hitting the nail on the head – literally.

During a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) event with a newly-added skilled trades component, fifth-graders recently hammered nails into lumber in the schoolyard, and learned how to assemble pipes and construct walls inside the Endeavor Elementary School gymnasium. Plumbing, electrical, carpentry and home-building are now job fields in the district’s STEM program, with the goal of giving students a glimpse of career paths in those industries.

Meadowlawn fifth-grader Madyson Butler, left, and Endeavor fifth-grader Addison Morgan practice pipe-fitting

Fifth-grade students from the district’s 10 elementary schools annually attend events introducing them to the world of STEM, with hands-on activities led by community partners. They also explore careers in fields including health care, engineering, technology and agriculture.

Skilled trades are among the STEM jobs that are high-demand.

“We know that there’s such a gap in the skilled trades area,” said STEM consultant Nancy McKenzie, who collaborated with community partners to add the new industries. “This just give kids another example of what (career path) they can take: a four-year path, two-year path, community college, technical school or apprenticeship.”

Jobs are waiting, said company representatives.

“There’s a lot of demand. There’s not enough people who want to do this work because they haven’t been exposed to it,” said Haley VanderLugt, who works in human resources at Standard Supply and Lumber, based in Grand Rapids, as she helped lead the hammering station.

Endeavor Elementary School fifth-grader Zykaria Colbert explains plumbing

High-Demand, High-Wage Jobs

According to the latest edition of the West Michigan Talent Assessment and Outlook, published in August, average compensation in energy and construction is $59,000, and growth is expected in many occupations within those industries, ranging from 6.5 to 34 percent.

Many students have the aptitude for skilled trades, McKenzie said. “Some kids want to work with their hands. … There are so many way they can be successful taking this path if it works for them.”

Leading workshops were representatives of the Home Builders Institute, Home Builders Association, Standard Supply and Lumber, and Scott Christopher Homes.

Patrick Shanafelt, vocational instructor for Home Builders Institute, introduced students to plumbing and electrical, with displays that show how pipes connect and lights turn on. He said many of the country’s electricians are baby boomers who will soon retire.

Endeavor Elementary School fifth-grader Amari McClanahan matches up lumber with its names

“We have this huge need for skilled trades, not just electricians, but plumbers, pipe-fitters, welders,” Shanafelt said.

But schools and companies have not caught up with the need to train the next generation, he said, and students are missing out.

“At the end of five years (of training), a journeyman electrician has zero debt and is making $60,000 a year plus almost an additional $30,000 a year in benefits, and you can go anywhere in the country with that job,” he said.

Jodie Rykse-Slamoran, foundation and community relations director for the Home Builders Association, said students aren’t always aware of jobs that require the skills needed in the trades.

“A lot of people who work in these jobs are super, super smart and great at technical skills, but they are also amazingly great with their hands,” Rykse-Slamoran said. “They can problem-solve with their hands and their brains at the same time.

“There are great career opportunities. There are thousands of job right here in our community,” she said, adding that students can start working in the field as teenagers and receive additional training and education.

Endeavor Elementary fifth-grader Zykaria Colbert explained how pipes fit together to allow water to flow through a faucet. She said seeing how things fit and work together is cool.

“I find it interesting about the plumbing,” Zykaria said. “There are a lot of different parts I didn’t know about.”

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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