Tyler Gulbranson doesn’t believe traditional schooling is for him. While working with classmate Matt Dixon on a kitchen sink, he talks about how sitting in a classroom preparing for college never excited him.
“It feels like an outdated system,” Gulbranson said. “And if you are not good at sitting and listening you are labeled as a ‘bad kid.’ Then you go to college and don’t even get a job most of the time. It’s dumb.”
Gulbranson, 17, is a senior at Peninsula High School and lives on the Key Peninsula. He talks with angst, like a typical teenager. While talking about school, he realizes he needs to cut some of the plastic pipe to the sink drain so it fits properly. He takes measurements with Dixon and starts using a handsaw to cut off a small sliver of pipe.
Gulbranson scoffs at the idea of college, since his parents never went.
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“My dad works from Amtrak and is in New York right now,” he said. “And my mom works for Albertsons. It’s like all they ever talk about is money. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to start out with debt.”
Gulbranson fits the pipe under the sink and starts screwing in some nuts to make it fit. He is working on the sink with Dixon quickly, even though he’s never installed a kitchen sink before. It’s all a part of the daily classes he takes as a part of the school district’s new Skilled-Trades Pre-Apprenticeship Program.
The program is seeing such early success, it has caught the eye of U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D–Gig Harbor, who has been inspired to work on new education legislation.
Kilmer is in the very early stages of drafting possible legislation that would support new programs, such as Peninsula’s, throughout the state.
“It’s always a bit dangerous to talk about legislation so soon,” Kilmer said, who represents Washington’s 6th Congressional District. “We’re looking at introducing legislation that could provide federal resources to communities and school districts like ours in the peninsula that are investing in career and technical education, that are establishing industry partnerships. There are private companies that embrace this because they need skilled workers. There are unions that embrace this as they see retiring work forces. Right now, the formulation we are looking at is either providing a match-grant program or maybe financial incentives. These are ideas that are percolating.”
A NEW WAY TO LEARN
The new program started this year and is teaching students the basics of plumbing, electric installation, construction, iron work and more. The program has 17 students from Peninsula High School and Gig Harbor High School, all boys at the moment. The boys – juniors and seniors — will finish the program with four different certifications, making them prepared to easily enter union labor apprenticeships.
The certificates include:
▪ An Occupational Safety and Hazard Association (OSHA) 10 certificate,
▪ First aid and CPR certificates,
▪ Flagger, forklift and scissorlift certificates.
Students also learn tool identification and proper use and math and science as it relates to skilled trades. They work on modules in electrical, construction, masonry, plumbing and welding, as well as understand the importance of fitness.
“They are in action,” curriculum facilitator of college, career and life readiness John Selfors said while observing students wiring a wall module. “This is problem-solving. This class started when Gary Schmidt from Sound Transit met with (district Superintendent) Rob Manahan and said he has 25 years worth of work and is short in skills trade. Iron workers, cement masons, carpenters. We don’t have enough skill labor.”
Selfors said they wanted to create programs such as the skilled-trades class so students could make the decisions between college and trade school easier.
The class teacher, Eric Morton, has a background in construction and has seen firsthand how a lack of new labor workers has created a shift in the skilled-trades community.
“Not everyone is meant to go to college after high school,” Morton said. “And that’s not a bad thing. This is a viable career.”
The class takes the last two periods of each day. Every class day includes 30 minutes of physical fitness to teach the students safe ways to work in the industry, such as how to lift lumber without injuring themselves. They also practice math and science that relates to each trade.
They take field trips to job sites and meet with local companies and union representatives, who are now recruiting high school seniors into their programs.
Not everyone is meant to go to college after high school. And that’s not a bad thing. This is a viable career.
Eric Morton, teacher at Peninsula High School.
During the class, the students built the school district a new shed to store athletic gear. Next year Morton hopes to work with the local Rotary to build a tiny home with electricity and running water for local homeless housing programs.
COLLEGE VERSUS TRADE
In the past decade, public school systems have seen a push for college like no other, which has lead to an increase in student debt throughout the nation. According to statistics from the Pew Research Center, by 2017 the student debt in America was up to $1.3 trillion.
“Only about half, 51 percent, of those ages 25 to 39 with at least a bachelor’s degree and outstanding student loan debt say that the lifetime financial benefits of their degree outweigh the costs,” the Pew Research Center website states.
“According to current research, the average age when someone enters a skilled-trade apprenticeship or trade school is 28,” Selfors said. “That’s 10 years after high school. Many of these people had gone and gotten a traditional secondary education but didn’t find a job within their field. We want to shorten that gap.”
“Here is what excites me about what the Peninsula School District is doing,” Kilmer said. “Providing these opportunities in career and technical education is a win-win. It provides kids with a career pathway that will offer good jobs and a good pay grade, and it helps employers who really need good, skilled workers. I also had an opportunity to talk with the students who were really excited cause they felt it opened doors for them.”
Only about half, 51 percent, of those ages 25 to 39 with at least a bachelor’s degree and outstanding student loan debt say that the lifetime financial benefits of their degree outweigh the costs.
The Pew Research Center
Gulbranson is one of those kids. He says he has met with a recruiter from a local iron-workers union who is helping him prepare to enter an apprenticeship in the fall. Morton said the best part of apprenticeships such as the one Gulbranson is pursuing, is that they are paid training. This means no loans and no debt after graduation.
“These students are looking at getting paid to be trained right out of high school,” Morton said. “They will be prepared to fill in the jobs that many people are retiring from.”
Gulbranson is excited about taking an ironworkers apprenticeship. Ironworkers are the same people who helped build the Tacoma Narrows bridges and skyscrapers in Seattle.
“Plus, I could make over $30 an hour right out of high school,” he said. “No debt. It comes with great insurance and benefits. It just too smart of a move.”
Gulbranson said he has gotten some pushback from his peers and family, who want to see him pursue more traditional paths like a four-year college degree.
Kilmer, Sulfors and Morton hope teaching students trades will bring back some of the respect for blue-collar work and show that it is a legitimate and underserved path to a career after high school.
Gulbranson and Dixon place the last pipe under his kitchen sink project and asks Morton to come look at their progress.
“You worked fast,” Morton tells the boys. “It’d be nice to show you the water running through it.”
With about 20 minutes left in class, Gulbranson pretends to act busy since he finished his assignment early, before most of his classmates.
“What the point of going to work if you don’t love what you are doing,” he says. “This is great because now I can look at what I achieved.”