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Educators connect students with workforce opportunities


Senior Dave Tilma works part time at MacDonald Plumbing in Grand Rapids, and plans to become a full time-plumber after high school through on-the-job training.

“I figured, ‘Hey, this is a good career path,’” Dave said. “A lot of kids don’t like going to school. If you want to go straight into the workforce and not have college debt, you can make $40,000 a year the first year out.”

Dave Jackson, a representative from the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Apprenticeship, and Lary Shoemaker, Byron Center High School STEM and advanced drafting teacher, hope to link more and more students like Dave Tilma directly to in-demand, high-wage careers.

Dave Jackson, an apprenticeship representative, speaks to a group of girls

Jackson spoke about apprenticeship programs to students in Shoemaker’s electric car class during National Apprenticeship Week, and separately to a group of girls interested in skilled trades and engineering. Jackson, who is based in Lansing, also spoke to a Women in Manufacturing panel at Grand Rapids Community College.

Jackson’s role is to connect people with apprenticeships, which are paid positions that offer on-the-job training and certification opportunities in healthcare, construction, information technology and other careers.

Apprenticeships, available to students as young as 16 (as pre-apprenticeships), lead to careers with competitive salaries that often cover college tuition costs. Average starting salary for an apprentice is $13 per hour, and the average completing apprentice makes about $60,000 a year, Jackson said.

“Employers hire and train individuals in many different careers. There are a thousand different apprenticeship-able occupations,” he said. Those include many in-demand occupations: electricians, plumbers, carpenters, machinists, maintenance technicians, mechanics, and advanced manufacturing careers.

Introducing More Options

Many students who start college don’t finish because they are unsure what they want to do, Jackson said. But there are other options to consider before enrolling in college without a plan.

“High school students today will (average) six career changes in their lifetime,” he said, noting that employers are in need of workers in many fields and are seeing a skills shortage as an aging workforce retires. “On-the-job training makes for education that is relevant and exciting. It’s makes my math more relevant, it makes my English more relevant.”

Dave Jackson, an apprenticeship representative, told Byron Center students how apprenticeships can lead directly to careers

Shoemaker said he’s long noticed a missing link between school and the workforce.  “What we are missing right now, in the state of Michigan, is bridging the gap between education and industry,” he said. “Businesses don’t really understand what goes on in my classroom; they don’t know these kids, their skills, knowledge, abilities and what their interests are.

“How do we bridge that gap between where these kids are at in their senior year, and what the needs of the business community are?”

He said he’d like to develop a network between schools and industry. “If we can do that, starting with apprenticeships, then we will have companies out there saying ‘we want to have these kids in our workforce.’”

Shoemaker also wants to change the conversation about what’s right for students. He said there’s a negative stigma around those who do not choose the four-year college pathway. “More than anything we need to have kids say, ‘It’s OK that my education is going to look a little different from yours… We need educational diversity in this country.’”

Shoemaker also wants to see more girls in skilled-trades and other male-dominated fields. Olivia Lee has been one of very few girls in his classes in the last couple years, he said, including CAM/CNC, drafting and STEM.

She’s currently the sole female in the electric car class, where students spend the year building race cars to compete in the spring.

“I’ve always loved to build thing with my hands, and I have a passion for mathematics, and this is a space where I can do both of those things,” said Olivia, a senior who plans to major in electrical or mechanical engineering at University of Michigan or Calvin College.

“It’s a great field, and there are not as many girls as there should be in the shop,” she said.

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West Michigan Works Hot Jobs 2018

The shop at Byron Center High School provides students with lots of hands-on experience

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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

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