Hundreds of South Sound teens get first-hand look at hard-hat careers

Fresh from a breezy ride in a cherry-picker that lifted her high above the Washington State Fairgrounds, Lincoln High School sophomore Briana Adcock was smiling.

“It was fun,” she said. “I didn’t expect it to be all shaky and stuff.”

Briana was one of more than 2,000 students who put their hands on everything from hammers to jackhammers at a career day held Thursday at the fairgrounds in Puyallup.

Equipped with safety glasses, helmets, ear plug protection and orange safety vests, kids from Pierce, Thurston, King and Kitsap counties were given the opportunity to explore the skills used in construction, manufacturing and other industrial work.

Those are the skills industry people worry might have skipped a generation. While most kids today have held a computer mouse from a very young age, fewer have held a trowel or a saw.

“We saw a need to start recruiting young people into skilled trades,” said Mark Martinez of the Pierce County Building and Construction Trades Council. “These kinds of careers aren’t overly exposed in high schools.”

Thursday’s event was the seventh annual career day. It was organized by Work Force Central’s Construction Partnership. Major sponsors included the Washington Laborers-Employers Cooperation & Education Team, Tacoma Public Utilities, the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, the Port of Tacoma and other industry groups and companies.

Like many businesses, the building trades worry about an aging workforce loaded with baby boomers poised to retire. Events like this aim to ensure that younger workers will be there to fill the gap as the economy pulls out of a recession and as demand for skilled workers increases.

Event coordinator Brandon Koenes, of the business-government partnership Workforce Central, said career day gives students a glimpse of occupations that don’t require a four-year college degree. In fact, many of the jobs featured Thursday pay workers to learn their trades through apprenticeship programs.

He said apprentices can earn between $17 and $19 an hour, while more experienced journey-level workers make $35 to $45 an hour.

Apprentices must be 18, and they must have either a high school diploma or GED certificate. And math skills are important, Martinez said.

Briana, visiting the fairgrounds with Tacoma kids from her Lincoln High wood shop class, was just the kind of student organizers were hoping to attract. She’s thinking about working in home construction after high school.

“I like jobs that are hands-on,” she said.

Kellen Kleiva, a senior at Rogers High School in Puyallup, had his first experience using a jackhammer at career day.

“You’ve got to keep a firm hold on it,” he said. “You just have to stay motivated.”

A student in Rogers’ career and technical education program, he said he’s considering college after graduation. But he believes practical knowledge is valuable, too.

“I’m here to get wider knowledge of the world around me,” Kellen said. “How-to books don’t solve everything.”

While some students at career day indicated interest in entering the skilled trades, others listed a variety of career aspirations, from nanny to surgeon.

Two Rogers High seniors, Amanda Eldridge and Cydney Beckwith, are interested in becoming mechanical engineers.

They were at career day to showcase the class project they and an all-girl team of students from their ACE (architecture, construction and engineering) class built together. The Master Builders Association of Pierce County sponsors a contest for students, asking them to design and build a dog house.

The girls from Rogers built a palatial dog house in the form of a gypsy-style wagon, aptly named Romani Waggin.’ They researched the Romani culture to authentically decorate the wooden structure.

“The biggest challenge was time,” said Cydney, who estimated that more than 130 woman-hours went into the project. Students even worked on the Veterans Day holiday.

Their teacher, Jon Cerio, said his class attracts students interested in college and those who want to enter the workforce sooner. He said he believes education needs to make room for both kinds of kids.

“I’m a Rogers grad,” Cerio said. “Wood shop is the reason I graduated. I would have dropped out otherwise.”

He first went to work for Boeing, then ran his own business before earning a degree in education. He’s an evangelist for career and technical education in public schools.

“We need to get this down to the elementary school,” he said.