Building trades provide a head-start on life
STOCKTON, Calif. – When students at the Lincoln High School Engineering and Construction Academy pick up a hammer, a pair of snips or a welding iron, they are learning skills, honing a craft and creating a foundation for the rest of their lives. They’re not just building projects. They’re building a future.
Jeff Wright, a contractor and the 2001 California State Teacher of the Year, just went with his gut — and a lot of research — when he founded the academy six years ago as an addition to the existing high school at 6844 Alexandria Place in Stockton, California.
“We lost one or two generations of building trades workers because of the recession and the dot com era. Everyone thought they’d work behind a computer,” Wright said. “For 20 years, counselors have said, ‘You need to go to college. You need to go to college. You need to go to college.’ I think we did many of those kids a disservice. A college degree is fine for some, but not for everyone.”
Wright, who directs Lincoln’s engineering and construction programs, views education differently from those who think the only path after high school should be toward a university degree and that shop class is for the kids who can’t pass calculus, English literature or physics. He believes the building trades are for everyone.
Thus, Wright does his part to push the more than 500 students — including more and more females — who enroll in the academy annually toward their future goals, whatever they may be.
Students get the basic training they need to have additional options after high school. According to Matt Smith, president of Smith Heating and Air Conditioning, one of the construction academy’s more than 80 benefactors, some of the students get internships post-graduation because of the contacts they made during their time in the academy.
“It’s so much more than bringing shop class back to high school,” Smith added.
By the time students graduate from the academy, they know about research and design, construction technology, mechanical construction, robotics, electronics, pneumatics, and hydraulics. These skills can help graduates obtain scholarships and work, and enter apprenticeships, junior colleges, or universities without acquiring big student loans.
“One of our biggest hurdles is to convince parents and counselors that we’re not trying to keep kids from going to college,” Smith said. “We promote all forms of higher education.”
Indeed, the academy provides about a dozen college scholarships funded by supporters, including the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA), International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART), and other industry groups as well as businesses, contractors and more.
“The building trades are a great place for the kids to get a head start on their lives,” Wright said.
Wright and five full-time instructors don’t just help students build their futures; they also help create good citizens of the world. Students have aided in fundraising for the academy by building sheds to sell in the community. Another project is a 700-square-foot construction simulator with six bathrooms that will allow current — and future — students to install ductwork, water pipes, electrical fixtures, and more, tear it out and install it again. The building is expected to be mostly finished by the spring semester 2017.
Students also created REACH (Rehabilitative Environment Aimed at Challenging Homelessness) Facilities and the Habitable Urban Tent (HUT), an inexpensive housing solution for use in developing countries, cities, and areas hit by disasters. HUTs are 64-square-foot equilateral triangles with a special jointing system that makes them easy to assemble without special tools or labor. They are insulated, water-resistant, impact-resistant, and contain a simple heating and cooling system, bed, and LED lighting.
The project won Best in Class at the 2016 California State Fair.
“These students have been inspired by their work at the Academy and are trying to solve a problem and give back,” Smith said. “How is that for success of the program?”
Smith’s company donates materials and time to help Wright and his students.
“I’ve talked to many students who say algebra and geometry make more sense because they can see how to use them,” Smith said. “You can see the students’ eyes light up. Many of those students have come back to me saying, ‘I like math again. I understand it.’”
He attributes the academy’s success to Wright’s vision in the beginning, motivation to work through all the hurdles and passion for teaching. “He’s created the most incredible curriculum of anyone I’ve ever seen. Some of our graduates immediately have job offers with benefits,” Smith said.
The success of the program has reached other cities. Dennis Canevari, assistant business manager for SMART Local 104 and co-chair for the local sheet metal apprenticeship training center, is working to bring a program like Lincoln’s to his area.
“How can I get people interested in sheet metal work when there aren’t shop classes in high school anymore?” Canevari said.
Canevari thinks the same way pre-K gives children a head start on the learning process, high school construction programs prepare students for apprenticeship.
“This curriculum produces the cream of the crop for the industry,” Canevari said.
“I’m pleasantly surprised by the way the kids and their parents have responded to this program,” Wright said. About 500 students have graduated from the program during the past six years.
The International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART) and the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA) have a labor-management partnership that is more than 75 years old. The goal of these Partners in Progress is to maintain an effective cooperative effort that demonstrates expertise in the industrial and architectural sheet metal and heating ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) markets. Together they sponsor the International Training Institute for the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Industry (ITI), with more than 150 apprenticeship training centers across the United States and Canada.