A representative from the Carpenters’ Union talks with students about apprenticeship programs the union offers during a trades fair at Riverside-Brookfield High School on March 3. | Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer

You don’t have to go to college to get a good job and have a rewarding career. That was the message that hundreds of Riverside-Brookfield High School students heard last week at a trades and career fair event held in the school’s fieldhouse.

Representatives from a host of trade union apprenticeship programs were at the fair talking to students about their programs and the opportunities they provide. It’s the first such event in recent memory and possibly a first-ever occurrence at RBHS.

This particular event had its origins in a desire by RBHS District 208 school board member Bill Durkin, who a few years ago urged school officials to build relationships with apprenticeship programs and present to students alternatives they might not be aware of.

“I just felt that there were plenty of opportunities and wanted to expose kids who may not be going to college for whatever reason, that there’s opportunities besides college,” said Durkin who was at the fair. “The trades are huge opportunities, They’re in such demand. The trades aren’t going away.”

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Director of Student Services Beth Augustine said her department has made a concerted effort to expose students to a wide range of possibilities of what they can do after graduating from high school and not just assume that all students will, or should, go to college.

“As a district it’s our responsibility to provide the options and then let students choose their path,” Augustine said. 

The rising cost of college and the burden of taking on tens of thousands of dollars of debt to pay for college has caused some students to consider other options.

“Trades definitely come up more and more with many of our students,” said school counselor Mike Reingruber. “As a department we probably do a better job in the last 10 years of highlighting the trades.” 

District 208 Superintendent Kevin Skinkis said there’s more on the way with respect to introducing students to the trades, including the development of an internship/apprenticeship program for upperclassmen.

“The high school started to work on this initiative 2018-19, but progress was delayed due to the pandemic,” Skinkis said in an email. “The goal is to continue to move forward with this initiative in the upcoming school years and develop multiple relationships with employers in various industries and the trades to provide career pathway opportunities for our students.”

Representatives from many union apprenticeship programs, including the electricians, operating engineers, plumbers, pipefitters, bricklayers, laborers and others were at the March 3 career fair talking to students.

Students were surprised to learn that apprentices earn more than $20 an hour during their apprentice programs and that journeymen can sometimes make more than $100,000 a year.

RBHS senior Krystal Servin was impressed when Marcus Jordan of Local 150 of the International Union of Operating Engineers union told her that both he and his sister, who is in her 20s, made about $140,000 last year operating heavy equipment such as excavators and cranes.

“I’m very surprised, especially at such at a young age,” Servin said. “There’s people who go to school for years and don’t even get paid that much.”

Servin said she has been planning to go to Triton College to study computer science but now wants to learn more about being an operating engineer.

“It would be something to consider if college doesn’t work out, because they get paid really good money,” Servin said. “Now that he told me more about it I think it would be something I would look into more. It makes me keep an open mind, but I’m just going to figure it out as I go.”

Jordan told Servin and her friends, Gladys Gonzalez and Viviana Vega, that math is an important element of an operating engineer’s job.

“It made me realize that even if you’re good at math you don’t have to be a big engineer or go to college, you can be an operating engineer,” Gonzalez said.

And they learned that women can operate heavy equipment just as well as men.

“It’s not something that just men do,” Gonzalez said. “I think that women are also capable of doing it.”

It opened up a new world of possibilities to the three girls and other students.

“It kind of opens your mind to consider some of these fields,” Vega said.

David Adams of the bricklayers union said he got interest from a few students.

“I got a pretty positive reaction from a few students that expressed interest,” Adams said. “They said they like working with their hands; that is what my job is about.”

The apprenticeship program for bricklayers and associated trades such as marble finishers, plasterers, tile layers and tile finishers runs for three years and, like most apprenticeship programs, features a mix of classroom and on-the-job training. 

Adams said apprentices start at $20 an hour and get a 5-percent raise every six months. Journeymen bricklayers get paid nearly $48 an hour.

“I even get people who are in their mid-20s who have racked up college debt,” Adams said. “I can’t tell you how many college students wind up in my program just to pay their debt off.”

Augustine said the dislocations of the pandemic have made more students really think about what kind of job they want to do. Some trades are fairly recession-resistant and the work of the trades cannot be outsourced.

“People still wanted their toilets working, they needed electrical [work],” Augustine said. “The systems and the structures of cities still needed to run.”