A DIFFERENT PATH: Trade students look forward to launching careers after high school

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HVAC Technician instructor Dan Canter talks to student Elizabeth Dodd of New Palestine High School. Canter has been instructing students for vocation school in the HVAC field as an alternative for a four-year college degree. Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022.

Tom Russo | Daily Reporter

HANCOCK COUNTY — A four-year college degree has long been the goal of many students, but an increasing number are turning to vocational training to hit the ground running right after graduation — earning a good income right away while their peers accumulate college debt.

The concept isn’t lost on Jacob Sexton, 17, a junior at Greenfield-Central High School.

Sexton is currently taking heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) classes at the high school to prepare him to join his dad’s business, Summers Plumbing Heating &Cooling of Greenfield, right after graduation. He already works part-time for his dad but stands to make a substantial salary after he graduates — especially for someone fresh out of high school.

Dan Canter, who teaches HVAC at Greenfield-Central, said students who pursue a trade during high school can expect to make upward of $60,000 after graduation, depending on the work.

“The average salary for a journeyman plumber just starting out is $67,000 to $69,000,” he said, while HVAC technicians will make a little less. Starting pay for electricians is also substantial, said Canter, who has spent years training students in trades that will serve them well.

A number of Hancock County high school students spend part of their school day taking trade-related classes at Walker Career Center in Indianapolis, which offers courses on automotive service technology, drafting and welding, to name a few.

Canter understands why an increasing number of students are considering a trade versus pursuing a four-year college degree.

“You can attend a university and go $100,000 in debt, then start out making $50,000 as a junior engineer, or you can learn a trade and make good money from day one,” he said between classes this week.

That’s the plan for Greenfield-Central junior Elizabeth Dodd, 16, who plans to join and eventually take over her dad’s contracting business, which provides a wide range of remodeling and repair services.

While working, she’d also like to earn a two-year business degree from Ivy Technical Institute to help her one day expand the family business, which was started by her great-grandfather 100 years ago.

Dodd has never been excited about the prospect of incurring debt while attending a four-year college.

“My dad never went to college, and he’s very successful,” she said.

Mary Gibble, president of the Hancock County Community Foundation, said an increasing number of donors are looking to support trade students like Dodd.

“HCCF stewards over 100 scholarship endowment funds. Some require that the student be in pursuit of a trade or technical certification or an associate degree,” she said.

The late Hugh and Barbara Leary established a scholarship fund in 2000 that has supported a trade student each year.

“Today, given the current trade/technical employment climate and the tremendous expense associated with a four-year degree, we are serving more and more donors with the same desire as the Learys,” said Gibble.

Yet not enough students are applying for the available trade-related funds during the foundation’s standard grant application window, from November through January, she said.

High school guidance counselors have shared that many students interested in earning an associate’s degree or certification don’t begin the planning process until the spring of their senior year, said Gibble.

With that in mind, the commujnity foundaiton has moved back the deadline for tech-related scholarships from the fall to the spring, opening them up in February with an April deaddline, she said.

Hugh and Barbara Leary’s son, Dan Leary, said his parents understood the value of teaching students a trade to give them a good start to life after high school.

“They knew that college wasn’t for everyone, and that many students could be served by learning a well-paying trade instead,” he said.

New Palestine High School’s principal, James Voelz, said he hasn’t seen a decline in college-bound graduates at his school, but that the school is working to create more industrial technology opportunities for students.

“We have seen a significant increase in interest in these kinds of classes,” said Voelz. “So we would anticipate more students entering a trade or apprenticeship program long-term based on the current interest.”

Stan Wilkison, assistant principal at Mt. Vernon High School, said his school uses a vocational survey to determine its Career and Technical Education (CTE) programing.

“The Health Sciences field showed a very high interest, so we developed the Health Science I class to offer to our students. All those students last year were certified as a Certified Nursing Assistant with clinical experience,” he said, adding that the number of students taking the course has grown substantially in recent years.

“We have added a Health Science II where students can take the Certified Medical Assistant test. We also have full classes this year with our new welding class,” he said.

Wilkison said it’s up to educators to prepare students for whatever they aspire to pursue after high school.

“We are trying to personalize this for our students by providing training in their interests,” he said. “Our number of students attending outside career centers has decreased due to providing more career and technical training here at our school.”

Canter is excited to see more educators, parents, students and financial supporters recognize the value of learning a trade in high school.

Of the 10 HVAC students he taught at Greenfield-Central last year, seven started work in the field right after graduation.

Students get hands-on experience working with HVAC equipment in Canter’s classroom and also get the chance to join local HVAC professionals on service calls.

Sexton likes the fact that service technician work isn’t monotonous, and it gives him the chance to positively impact people’s lives.

“I like being out and seeing something different every day, and being able to make people comfortable in their own homes,” he said.

His classmate, Keagan Baker, 19, is also drawn to the work. “I like problem-solving — finding a problem and fixing it,” he said.

The high school senior is looking forward to landing a job doing HVAC work after graduating this spring. “It’s nice to be able to find work making good money right out of high school,” he said.

Wilkison said the natonal job market plays a huge role in the number of students looking to pursue a trade straight out of high shcool.

“The supply and demand of available jobs nationwide is a definite factor, as there are many industries looking to hire skilled professionals,” he said.