May 8, 2015
By Kent Jackson
White light flashed and sparks hit the shop floor at the Hazleton Area Career Center as Zack Baran showed his welding technique.
Welding, electronics and other trades are sparking students’ interest.
Enrollment at the career center exceeds 900, up about one-third from a few years ago, Principal Lori Herman said.
Some students seek jobs after high school to help support their parents, who lack the money to send them to trade school or college.
Graduates can step into careers without continuing their education, and the natural gas boom in Pennsylvania has boosted pay and demand for welders, electricians and diesel mechanics.
“You have a 20-year-old making $78,000,” welding instructor Richard Lazar said.
Sixty percent of last year’s graduates from the career center, however, pursued higher education.
They’re at culinary schools, beauty schools, community college, Pennsylvania College of Technology and four-year colleges and universities where they major in nursing, engineering and other subjects.
Herman said a girl who graduated from the nurse assistant’s program is now a pre-med student at Drexel University.
A boy who graduated a few years ago worked as an electrician to pay for college. Now he’s an electrical engineer, Herman said.
As more students want to enroll at the career center, competition intensifies.
In cosmetology, graduates can obtain a state license, providing that classes have no more than 25 students per teacher.
The certified nursing assistant’s program each semester can accommodate 30 students, who observe in hospitals and nursing homes as part of their training.
Openings for each class in the welding program are the same as the number of cubicles in the welding shop: 17.
When Baran finished welding and pushed his gray, robot-style mask above his eyes, he explained that he isn’t in the welding program. He studies diesel mechanics, but took an elective class in welding that might help, for example, if he is welding vehicle frames.
“I would like to work on heavy equipment,” Baran, a junior, said.
Six welding students in 12th grade go to school part time and work part time.
They are among 23 students enrolled in the co-op program of the career center.
Larry DeBello, who runs the co-op program, keeps a file on each of them.
They include a would-be architect who helps customers design remodeling jobs at Sherwin-Williams Paint Store, a machinist and a law enforcement student who sets up lane closures for road workers with Franzosa Trucking.
Gloria Tineo works at Coal Contractors, where she steam cleans trucks that are so large she climbs a ladder to reach the cab.
“I even got to get in one … it was fun,” said Tineo, who said her co-workers are polite and plan to teach her next how to grease the trucks.
DeBello, who places students in co-ops when he isn’t teaching automotive repair at the career center, said the companies often hire students from the co-op to work full time after they graduate.
He enjoys seeing his former students when he stops by automotive businesses such as Berger Family Dealerships and Jack Williams Tire and Auto Service Center.
“We want them to stay in our area,” DeBello said.
Hazleton Area School Board member Dr. Robert Childs said the district needs a larger co-op program with a full-time coordinator and more ties to industrial parks run by CAN DO.
“A community our size should have 40 to 60 students” in the co-op program, Childs said.
The other problem, he said, is some shops are archaic and all should allow students to earn certifications.
Herman said people from more than 70 local businesses advise what to teach and how to equip the shops. Students enrolled in programs including welding, cosmetology, construction trades, automotive and metal working can earn certificates in their field, some of which qualify them for college credit or reduce the time they would serve in apprenticeships after high school.
Elaine Maddon Curry of the Hazleton One Community Center said some high school girls who study nursing at the career center think they are on a path to becoming registered nurses, a degree that requires two or more years of college.
“When I clarified that they were studying to be a nurse’s aide, they were surprised,” said Curry, who recommends that school advisers take care to explain to students and parents what the programs offer and why they recommend that the student enroll.
Graduates from the career center who don’t get into a college nursing program can pay to take an 18-month program to become practical nurses, which also is taught at the career center.
Next door to the career center at Hazleton Area High School, guidance counselor Lisamarie Stetz said a co-op program might help students who don’t think college is a good fit for them.
“They see a glut of college graduates, and the financial assistance isn’t there,” Stetz said.
Some students didn’t perform well enough to land or keep a slot at the career center, so they shift to the high school with lower motivation.
Others transfer from New York or elsewhere, are 18 but in their sophomore or junior year.
Many work full-time jobs that begin right after school ends at 3 p.m.
“They leave right from school, are exhausted and end up quitting,” Stetz said.
She suggested a way to help them earn a diploma and a paycheck by reducing graduation requirements from 28 credits, as Hazleton Area requires, to 21, which the state requires.
Instead of taking other courses, selected students could receive credit for working, Stetz said. The district also might offer them training in soft skills such as how to apply and interview for a job and re-offer secretarial skills training, which would complement the language skills of bilingual students who are in demand for office jobs, she said.
The odds of someone without a high school diploma finding a job are about 50-50. Of the 3.7 million high school dropouts, 23.8 percent worked and 23.4 percent didn’t, the National Center for Education Statistics reported in 2012. Nearly 53 percent of the school dropouts also dropped out of the labor force, the center said.
Also in 2012, the Washington Times reported that 16 percent of high school students worked, compared with 32 percent two decades earlier. The recession in 2008 led older, more experienced workers to compete against high schoolers for entry-level jobs at stores and restaurants. That means fewer students have learned firsthand the basics of the workplace such as promptness and politeness.
At the career center, students win places in classes and co-ops based on their grades and attendance. Good habits in school predict good habits at work, Herman said.
She tells students to list their second and third choices when they apply for programs.
If the applicants overflow the spots in nursing, the other students might enter the health careers or child care programs.
“Students find a niche,” Herman said. “I don’t think I’ve turned anyone away, to be honest.”
In the electrical shop, which has room for 60 students per semester, groups of students tackled different projects.
One group plotted how to assemble and wire a countertop-sized assembly line that placed caps on bottles.
Another team worked with a programmable logic controller, a device widely used in industries.
Tony Sandutch, the instructor, said some of his classes have a mix of juniors and seniors with different levels of training.
“They help each other,” Sandutch said.
Mathematics skills are essential for working in electronics, he said, but the students also need to be communicators.
“A lot of the section is designing or troubleshooting,” Sandutch said.
Students need to listen to the operators who run the machines that they repair or improve, he said.
“Technical manuals,” he said: “They need to learn to read them,” which is what Christian Peguero was doing while wiring a circuit board.
An 11th-grader, his interest in electronics began when he was younger.
“I would take apart my own toys. See how it worked, put it back together. I even took apart my phone sometimes. I got it back together,” said Peguero, who would like to design phones, tablets and computers after going to college.