In Jim Seagriff’s classroom at Taylor Allderdice High School, there are a half dozen furnaces and boilers. A small closet area is set up the way a basement would be. Goggle-clad teenagers adjust knobs on mock refrigerators.
These are HVAC students in the Career and Technical Education program.
By the time they graduate, they could have up 23 college credits and certificates to work in the heating, ventilation and air conditioning field. Which is what senior Zak Kovalsky is planning on doing when he graduates this spring.
"I know a couple of people who are in the business and they make really, really good money, and there is always demand in the summertime and the wintertime for people to fix your furnaces and maintenance and install and new ones and stuff like that," he said.
Kovalsky is enrolled in a pilot program at Pittsburgh Public Schools that allow some career and technical students to take classes co-taught by Community College of Allegheny County teachers while they’re still in high school.
"These kids will go straight into the workforce," said teacher Jim Seagriff. "Some will go to college or trade school for HVAC or to do that or others will just go to college in general to be doctors, and yet they still have a great trade for summer jobs and things like that, so they are learning skills not just for HVAC, but for life."
One such student is Tyree Carlins, a Westinghouse junior who takes his career and technical classes at Taylor Allderdice. He wants to be a neurologist.
"This is like an extra skill I can have, like have a job in college that actually pays well instead of working at like McDonalds or something," he said.
The Pittsburgh Promise gives graduates of the city’s public schools up to $40,000 in scholarship money to pursue higher education in the state. In this pilot program, the Pittsburgh Promise pays Community College of Allegheny County directly for the credits the kids are taking. If they pursue further education, the cost of those credits is deducted from that $40,000.
Pittsburgh Promise Executive Director Saleem Ghubril said this pilot program came about after they looked at the jobs that are available in the region and the kids who are eligible for the Promise scholarship, but not using the money.
He said about 25 percent of every graduating class doesn’t use their Promise money. And at the same time, local employers have jobs that need to be filled.
"They are chomping at the bits for this to just start turning graduates," Ghubril said. "I talked to a utility company here in Pittsburgh, just very recently. And 50 percent of their entire workforce will retire in the next five years, which means half of their workforce, and it’s a large workforce, is currently in their late 50s and early 60s," he said.
Jim Seagriff knows this well. He used to work in the HVAC field but has been teaching for the last two years.
"I know I could go door-to-door to HVAC companies in the Pittsburgh area, and they will beg for people who are qualified to come in and work," he said. "They get applicants because the employment rates are, unemployment is just so high right now, but they don’t have qualified people coming to apply."
The field, and vocational coursework, has changed since he graduated high school in the early '90s.
"It was just something to do when I was in school," Seagriff said. "Now it's about a career. These guys here they get educated on how to do resumes; they fill out career portfolios. We’re teaching them about work ethic while they’re in the shop, not just how to do the trade, but how they’re going to have to deal with it when they get out into the field. It's not really shop class how it used to be. It's career training more than shop."
And traditional blue-collar work is now computer work.
"As far as furnaces go, it's gone from where people have a standing pilot in them that anybody — everybody worked on their own furnace, you changed the pilot out, then you called a service technician," Seagriff said. "Now it flashes codes. It runs off a circuit board, and there are many computers inside the furnaces."
For the students in Seagriff’s class, the idea of a future career is appealing, as is the opportunity to do more active learning.
"In my other classes I’m like writing essays and just listening to what the teacher has to say, but in here I get to actually do something and apply it," said student Tyree Carlins. "Like I know I can take this and go work somewhere. Which like in math class I could be learning equations, and I know that I can use the equations in real life but its like not a real scenario. But in here I get to do stuff like that."
Some school administrators like Angela Mike understand this. She runs the Career and Technical program in Pittsburgh Public Schools. Back in the '80s she was a vocational student at Westinghouse. She studied cosmetology.
"When I was in the 11th grade, I received my manicuring license so I was able to work in a shop," she said.
She worked with the Pittsburgh Promise to get this pilot program going because, "Some of our students were somewhat bored or didn’t have the passion to continue with school because they didn’t find their passion or their area of interest."
She remembers how much vocational education changed her.
"For a lot of students and myself, once they entered into a CTE program and found something that they could do three periods a day that not only helped them learn a skill they could make money from but also incorporate English, math and science and not even realize that you're doing it, and someone makes a connection for you and the light goes off and now you have an interest in your other classes also, your academic courses," Mike said. "For me that was just exciting, and to come back and see that light bulb go off for other students here in the district."
There are 60 students enrolled in this program this year in several disciplines. Next year, the program will expand to other career and technical tracks.