North Country’s future workforce starts job training in high school
During high school, you can take foreign languages, calculus, and orchestra, but at some schools in the North Country, you can also learn how to fix a car or build a house. New York’s BOCES, the Boards of Cooperative Educational Services, offer career and technical education programs to high school students.
At the Franklin-Essex-Hamilton BOCES, based in Malone, there are about 150 students. The students are spread out amongst programs like Building Trades, Electrical, and HVAC. These hands-on programs teach students a specific skill set, and prepare them to join the workforce right out of high school.
Building houses in high school
Garrett Niles is wearing a tool belt and hunched over a cabinet inside a bright blue ‘Tiny House on Wheels.’ Niles is 17 years old, and a junior in high school. He’s one of 35 students in the Building Trades program here, at the North Franklin Educational Center in Malone.
“It’s a lot better than sitting in a classroom all day,” he said. “A lot more fun, too. I can actually learn something that can actually help me in the future make money and stuff.”
Students come from as far as Chateaugay, Bombay, Fort Covington, St. Regis Falls and Akwesasne for the program. Niles has a short commute because he lives in Malone. He spends the first half of his day at the high school just up the hill.
“I go to school up there and then come down to BOCES during the afternoons, work down here for the rest of day,” he said.
In addition to the tiny house, the kids are also building a 1,500-square-foot modular home.
“This starts with a pile of lumber in the fall,” said Eric Ashlaw, the Building Trades teacher. “And at the end of the year, you’ve got something like this, you know, a finished product that somebody could live in. It’s pretty cool.”
‘Not every kid learns from a book’
Ashlaw is 44. He grew up in Malone and went through this same BOCES program as a teen, then spent 20 years working as a union carpenter.
“Well, not every kid I guess learns from a book. That was me,” he said. “When I was in high school, one of the main drivers for me coming, wanting to come to school my junior and senior year was coming down here.”
Ashlaw started leading the program in 2017, and he says a big motivator for him is getting students ready to really jump into the field.
“I’ve noticed over the last, well, 10 to 15 years that there wasn’t a lot of kids coming out of these programs that I was seeing on the job sites,” he said. “So I wanted to come back and train kids to get them out there.”
Ashlaw said former students now work for local contractors, and for New York’s carpenters union, UBC, where the yearly salary starts at $35,000, and includes benefits and retirement.
A lot of the students here plan on careers in building. Niles would like to join the UBC. Destiny Roque, one of just two girls in the program, would like to start her own business.
“I’ve loved building for a long time,” Roque said. “My father does it, and he’s starting his own company. So I’m trying to help him out, too. So it’s nice to learn. I want to hopefully eventually start my own business in the future.”
Others, like Jared Sweet, said they joined the program “because these are useful skills.”
“In the future I can fix things in my own house,” he added. Sweet isn’t sure he wants to work in construction, but said he’s enjoyed getting to work with his hands.
A place to excel
For kids who have always struggled with tests and traditional academics, the BOCES technical trades programs can be really empowering, and an opportunity to excel in school. Of the dozen students I spoke with over the course of the afternoon, every single one said that ‘bookwork’ isn’t their forte. Tehonietathe Sharrow said he’s struggled with grades a lot.
“Ever since I got into middle school really,” he said. Sharrow goes to Salmon River and commutes to Malone each day. He says hands-on work interests him “because I can only do so much on a piece of paper.”
“So really, [this program], it’s been a relief,” he added.
Savanna Clark, from St. Regis Falls, said she feels the same way. This is what she feels good at.
“I took shop class for three years. It was really good. I loved it. Love building projects. For me, it’s just more like a way to get like, a lot of emotions out.”
Sharrow and Clark were painting a closet together when I spoke with them. They met on the program, and became fast friends. They both said they’ve opened up here. Clark said when she came here, she was “very antisocial.”
“But as time grew on, I started to like, open up a little bit more,” she said. “In a job site. It’s kind of gonna be necessary to talk to people you don’t really know. And it’s just cool to have friends that you meet from different schools. So it’s been quite an experience this year.”
Sharrow and Clark are both juniors, and they say they’re definitely returning next year.
The future trades workforce
Eric Ashlaw, the Building Trades teacher, said his program (and the rest at the Malone FEH BOCES) are good for students, but that they also play a critical role in the North Country workforce.
“Our workforce in the trades is actually getting to the point where [many of our older workers], they’ll be retiring,” he said. “And we need people to take over their positions. And there’s so much work out there right now that we need these guys out there.”
He said right about now, at the end of each school year, he fields daily calls looking for workers. And he has them.