A MeANS to Get Students Interested in the Trades

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When George Walter Hinckley founded Good Will-Hinckley more than 130 years ago, he knew the organization—and the young people it served—would only succeed by staying connected to the community. Few efforts highlight this philosophy better than GWH’s longstanding commitment to vocational training.

The connection dates to the turn of the 20th century, when the Industrial School at Good Will taught classes in the Quincy Building. Students learned carpentry, mechanical drawing, chemistry, ironworking and more from 1903-1914. Later, in the mid-1930s, George Hinkley pushed for the development of a vocational school on the Good Will east property.

More recently, Good Will-Hinkley has had strong relationships with the Mid-Maine Technical Center in Waterville and the Somerset Career & Technical Center in Skowhegan.

Introducing new tilapia fish to the aquaponic tanks in the MeANS greenhouse

And in 2011, we cemented our commitment to the trades with the opening of the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, the state’s first public charter high school. We’re trying to use the school, its programs, its connections to vocational schools in the region, and the Kennebec Valley Community College (KVCC) to get students interested again in the trades.

And there’s good reason for this approach.

What happened to the workers?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, industries like construction and manufacturing will see steady growth in available jobs over the next 10 years. But those industries are also facing a steep decline of available, qualified and interested workers.

Why are young people less interested in the trades these days? To try and get some answers, I went to two trusted sources at MeANS: Matt Newberg, the head of school, and Danni Best, the dean of students.

In years past, Matt says, there have been lots of students at MeANS studying at one of the area’s two vocational schools, but this year, there’s only one who is taking some welding classes.

“The schools need to provide opportunities for students to look at different careers, visit tech centers and understand there are other jobs out there for them.”

He says he’s not sure why students aren’t interested in filling manual labor jobs anymore. One explanation, he says, is that service industry jobs, like those at Starbucks and similar establishments, have fewer physical demands and they have attracted teenage workers who maybe would’ve gone into manual labor in the past.

Danni surmises the shortage of students interested in the trades has more to do with not knowing those opportunities exist.

She says MeANS students can take classes at KVCC, but more needs to be done to educate all students throughout Maine that these programs are out there.

For example, there are a lot of students who want to be welders, she says, and they think that because they’re always at home working on their vehicles or on snowmobiles with their dad that they don’t need additional training or education. But that’s not the case.

Student Coltran Austin alongside an instructor from the Mechanized Logging Program

“The schools need to provide opportunities for students to look at different careers, visit tech centers and understand there are other jobs out there for them,” Danni says.

And, of course, some students are engaged in the trades. “We have a student at MeANS now showing a lot of interest in working at a local farm, and the student’s supervisor is over the moon because not too many 15-year-olds want to get up at 4 a.m. to milk cows,” Matt says. MeANS was opened in 2011 for this exact reason—to teach students who have a passion for agriculture, forestry and sustainability. Through our partnerships, they can study trade disciplines like electrical, plumbing, carpentry and more. And yearly career days and guest speakers do a great job highlighting these opportunities. But we need to do more.

Working with your hands

When I was school-age, and I suspect the same is true for so many others, we didn’t spend a lot of time inside sitting on the couch watching TV, texting or playing video games.

For one, those things either didn’t exist (video games and cell phones) or didn’t exist in their current form (TV). Plus, I always wanted to be outside using my hands, trying to build things, create things and just be active.

Today’s children and teenagers have a lot more things that keep them inside, and it’s our jobs as educators to give them opportunities to do other things.

MeANS students identifying apple trees at MOFGA, learning to graft, etc.

Take, for instance, Jackson Liberty, a 17-year-old junior at MeANS. He agrees that everybody—the schools, teachers, parents—needs to do a better job educating students about the opportunities in the trades.

Jackson, who is planning to attend Maine Maritime Academy to study marine engineering technology, admits he had the benefit of growing up and doing carpentry with his father. He then took two years of vocational classes.

Not everyone is raised that way, so it’s our job to open students’ minds to new career paths that don’t require the traditional route of graduating high school and attending a top-tier college or university.

I know the importance of having students engaged in all of their classes, whether it’s history and writing or any of the STEM classes. Good Will-Hinkley will continue to do everything we can to support students’ unique interests and support vocational schools, vocational programs and the trades.

Now, during COVID—where we have more screen time than ever—hands-on work is especially important for our well-being and our connection with reality.