Great Barrington — On a mild, sunny day in late November, 11 sophomore and junior boys sporting hoodies and baseball caps gathered around a conference table at Monument Mountain Regional High School with Will Conklin of Greenagers and Sean Flynn, the district’s career and vocational technical education coordinator. They were there to figure out the hows and whens of getting out of the building. They’d already identified the whats. Horticulture, construction, heavy machinery operation and automotive repair were the things they wanted to get their hands dirty with in the “real world.” This was just a logistics meeting, with a reminder of the bigger picture.
“If any of those things catch you,” suggested Conklin, “we can help connect you for summer apprenticeships and jobs.”
This week, the first cohort of about five students will inaugurate Pathways to the Trades, a new collaboration between the school, Greenagers, Construct Inc. and Railroad Street Youth Project. The remainder of the group will join them in the new year. Participants will spend two to four afternoons per week working hands-on in the work world, on construction sites and working farms, earning both class credit and stipends, and learning skills in the virtual and physical “makerspaces” at Greenagers’ new center of operations, April Hill in South Egremont. One-to-one mentoring will round out the program. In year two, so goes the hope, a full cohort of juniors and seniors will work independently with contractors in paid apprenticeships. “Real life skills are what kids are clamoring for,” said Conklin.
South Berkshire County has no dedicated vocational technical school. Our two regional high schools are “comprehensive,” meaning that both college and vocational tracks are offered under one roof. But in keeping with national trends over the past few decades, which accelerated after the No Child Left Behind legislation in 2001, college-for-all has become the de facto expectation, leaving vocational options stigmatized and de-prioritized. This has translated to a large segment of each graduating class moving on without either a marketable skill or the academic chops to make it through college.
Monument is riding a wave of renewed interest in what’s now called career and vocational technical education, or CVTE. On the eastern shore of Massachusetts, vo-tech high schools like Blue Hills and South Shore have become so popular they’re turning away up to 50 percent of applicants. Amid a backdrop of overall declining public school enrollment in Berkshire County, McCann Technical High School is one of the successful outliers, maintaining robust numbers. (Mike Rowe, host of “Dirty Jobs” and “Somebody’s Gotta Do It,” is perhaps the most well-known spokesperson for a renaissance in the skilled trades.)
Pathways to the Trades will be tapping into several pre-existing efforts, structures and relationships, including RSYP’s longstanding mentoring program, Construct’s partnerships in the local trades environment, and Greenagers’ summer trails and farm crew program. Perhaps most significantly, it will be building on Monument’s internship model, whereby students are matched with local businesses for on-the-job experience.
Flynn’s hope with this first “pre-pilot” group, as he calls it, is to figure out what works and to “thoughtfully build something sustainable.” The Pathways to the Trades model, he hopes, could potentially be applied to the other career pathways Monument is now developing in advanced manufacturing and health care. Engineering Design, for instance, a new course at the high school — already fully enrolled with five sections — could eventually include work-based shadowing, college credit and 100-hour internships.
Sophomore Charles Annecharico of Sandisfield grew up the youngest of three kids with a contractor father who, in Charles’ words, “does everything.” Charles is not interested in following in Dad’s particular footsteps, though. He fell in love with plants while a student at Farmington River, where he helped his teachers care for their classroom plants. They sent the plants home with him at the end of the year. “Plants fascinate me. I love the idea of making things grow and thrive.” He now operates a home greenhouse and sells cacti and succulents at a roadside stand.
Charles has worked with Greenagers’ summer crew for two summers, and in an internship at Windy Hill Farm, where he earned rave reviews from owner Judy Mareb. She called him one of the hardest workers they’d ever had, according to Flynn and Conklin. In school he works in the horticulture program with teacher Bill Florek, and Pathways to the Trades will place him with a landscaper.
It was Jane Ralph, executive director of Construct, who convened the first serious discussions about how to develop a new generation of skilled tradespeople in South Berkshire County. She came to her decision based on what she saw during the construction of Forest Springs, Construct’s 11-unit housing development on Route 23 near Ski Butternut. She noticed the advanced ages of the contractors working on the project, who told her they couldn’t find anyone younger to work with them.
Ralph said: “In my naivete, I thought, ‘Well, let’s just connect the old with the young.’ Of course, if it was easy, it would be happening on its own.” Over the last two years, she’s served on the Economic Prosperity group at Berkshire United Way and seen that even a construction company as big and well-resourced as Allegrone just does not have the capacity to develop apprenticeship programs on its own: “Everyone’s out in the field.”
She, along with June Wolfe, Construct’s housing director and architect, and Construct board member Bruce Moore organized a series of initial meetings to gather partners and ideas for a trades-development program. Diane Singer, Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee member, suggested connecting contractors with high school students who might be looking for options other than college with its enormous costs.
Their idea has not been a hard sell for anyone. Tradespeople — plumbers, HVAC techs, mechanics, heavy machine operators, contractors — all say, “Yes, yes and yes,” when asked if they’d like to get involved with Pathways to the Trades, and the list of possible worksite assignments for students keeps growing. Among the partners identified so far are contractor Evan Hardcastle, Greenagers board member and contractor Peter Whitehead, electrician Eric Gabriel, and Moore. As weather permits, assignments will likely include landscape designers.
Pathways to the Trades will expose students to work possibilities, and also to how much that work has been transformed with technology. Said Conklin, “The trades have a reputation for being repetitive, and that’s not really true anymore.” Timber frames, for instance, are no longer made with a chisel and hand drill; they’re done on a Computer Numerical Control machine. Car mechanics today need to be trained in all manner of advanced operating systems.
The program also aims to streamline the certification process and “loop kids into” the pipelines established by the Department of Education for hours required, etc. “That’s why there is a mentorship piece. We want to set up kids with a mentor apart from their worksite supervisor, to have someone to bounce questions and ideas off of.”
Pathways’ mentoring component will also tap into work already underway and relationships already made. Construct will use its pre-existing network to recruit adult mentors, who will then be trained by RSYP’s experienced mentoring program staff and matched with Pathways participants. There are many details still to be worked out, and it’s not clear what maximum capacity will look like for the program, but for the moment, Ananda Timpane, RSYP’s executive director, said she’s “super excited they’re getting this off the ground. I’m looking forward to weaving this into what we’re doing.”
Pathways to the Trades has been made possible through a wide variety of funding sources. Construct’s leadership is funded by grants through the Berkshire United Way, Guardian Life Insurance and the Sohn Foundation. MMRHS was one of five schools across the state to receive a Mass IDEAS Planning Grant, supported by the Barr Foundation and Nellie Mae Education Foundation, which funds promising school redesign projects. A private family foundation and private donations are supporting Greenagers’ portion of the program management. Herrington’s, the local lumber and building supplies provider, is offering in-kind support. (In the future, Pathways to the Trades might be eligible for bigger pots of money, such as Youth Build funding or federal pass-through programs.)
Flynn is effusive in his gratitude for Monument’s community partners who are digging in to support students’ learning goals, and credits them for the program’s potential: “We know there’s a need for training in the trades. I’ve have heard it from more tradesmen than you can count. We are so fortunate for our partners’ willingness to work collaboratively with us to address this need. Let’s use our strength, which is the commitment of faculty and our community partners, and work together.”
He singles out Railroad Street Youth Project’s culinary program as the forerunner of effective school-business partnerships. This weekend the youth organization will be celebrating its 20th anniversary with the annual culinary dinner, a five-course meal prepared by high school students under the guidance of professional, local chefs. The program is in its 14th year, and there’s many a restaurant with an alumnus or alumna in the kitchen.