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Paving future pathways: America’s Central Port creates hands-on model to promote trades



Following two successful visits by high school students to America’s Central Port in 2022 and 2023, an idea was generated to create an experimental summer workshop that would not only introduce teens to the trades but give them real-world hands-on experience.

The idea rapidly transformed into action, gaining the support of the Port’s team, Madison County Employment and Training Department, Granite City High School, and the Board of Education. As soon as the Port announced the program, Granite City High School got the word out, and those who responded first were added to the roster.

From vision to execution

Structured as a five-day program, ten students from Granite City High School and the surrounding area, ranging from freshmen to seniors, met from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday for one week in June. Capping participation to ten students ensured personalized attention and a one-of-a-kind immersive experience.

The maintenance team at America’s Central Port is cross trained to take on multiple projects across many specializations. Because of this, the Port wanted to make sure the hands-on activities that were chosen reflected the myriad of projects the Port maintenance team tackles any given day of the week. 

Project 1: Safety isn’t just a buzzword

To ensure no detail was overlooked, students were split into pairs and assigned a dedicated maintenance worker. Five staff members from the Port team, including Brian Stahlschmidt, Darrin Jones, Will Moore, Jay Jackson, and Jay Petras, worked one-on-one with each student, an investment the Port found crucial to providing a true hands-on experience. 

Every day started by discussing the work ahead and challenging students to think along with their mentor counterparts about what tools, materials, and safety requirements are needed to get the job done right, safely, on budget, and on time. In addition, each participant was equipped with a safety pack at the start of the program, containing work gloves and protective glasses, where additional protective gear was provided as needed. 

Project 2: Concrete sidewalk construction

From tamping a rock bed to pouring and finishing the concrete, and then removing the forms the next day, students built a sidewalk from start to finish. To ensure success in the event of rain, additional sites were pre-prepped with a skid-steer by the maintenance team.

Project 3: Wood stud wall construction

The Port set up shop in one of its off-market commercial spaces where students could construct a wall as though they were building within a real commercial space, not just a classroom. The project included framing, basic electrical placements for lights and plugs, sweating copper pipes, setting a toilet and a p-trap for a sink, and drywalling. At the end of their work, all students were able to turn on the lights they had wired.

Project 4: Residential walk-through, HVAC maintenance overview

To appreciate the significance of their handiwork, students toured an apartment to see an example of their finished work, as well as understand additional home-related maintenance tasks, such as heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems.

Project 5: Wood stud wall demolition

To provide the full experience of wall construction, the last project the Port organized to round out the week was hands-on demolition. Supervised and instructed on how to do so in a safe and controlled environment, students got to use several power tools and other equipment to demo the walls they had built earlier in the week. 

Additionally, throughout their week, students were given the opportunity to weld and operate a backhoe, two skills in high demand in the manufacturing and construction industry.

Beyond the projects that were facilitated for each student, tenants of America’s Central Port like KB Pods, which manufactures modular kitchens and bathrooms, and River’s Edge Terminals, which manages petroleum products for customers around the world, provided tours of their facilities to provide a behind-the-scenes look into what it’s like to work for a trades-based employer. 

SCF Lewis and Clark, the barge and river terminal operators, also provided a talk and overview of career paths that have the potential to earn over a six-figure income through various trade-related paths within the river transportation sector. 

Inspiring future success

The program was conceived to take ten young individuals and give them the confidence to consider a career in the trades. The outcome went far beyond that. 

Parents of the students were amazed when their children were up early and ready to go to “work” each day. They were eager, showed enthusiasm, and weren’t mopey or dragging their feet at home during that full week. Several parents asked if the program could last all summer long because of the drastic change they saw in their children. 

“The summer program really helped my son determine what he would like to pursue in the trades. The program was wonderful, and he enjoyed attending every day. He just wished it lasted longer,” noted participant parent Savannah Faith. 

Port maintenance staff learned to become teachers, and everyone learned that with a little patience, training, and one-on-one attention, young students have the gift to give back more than we ever dreamed. 

“The value of providing hands-on work experience to young people in the trades cannot be emphasized enough,” said Madison County Employment & Training Department Director Tony Fuhrmann. “This program gave those students that opportunity.” 

“Beginning in 2022, America’s Central Port District worked with Madison County Employment and Training for a successful opportunity to bring high school juniors and seniors to the Port for a half day, to provide exposure to manufacturers. The realization was that students become more engaged the more they can get their hands dirty,” Port Executive Director Dennis Wilmsmeyer pointed out. “Static displays and ‘open house’ style events just don’t work when you are trying to motivate, engage or otherwise introduce manufacturing and the trades. You can talk all you want to them and even show them, but it’s not the same. Once they actually get in and start doing it themselves, then it clicks.

“This event was an opportunity to allow students to get a real feel for if they are cut out for the trades,” Wilmsmeyer added. “America’s Central Port, like many, are needing talented individuals to perform many aspects of the building trades. Granite City High School’s interest was to help identify the career interests of the students as incoming freshmen so that they can establish courses that will support their decision. It’s all about finding what interests the students and then capitalizing on it.” 

Photos courtesy of America’s Central Port


This story also appears in the December 2023 print edition of the Illinois Business Journal.


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