Ray Plummer, a BFUHS Senior, is learning diesel truck mechanics with the Advantage Truck Group in Westminster, via the Work-Based Learning Program.
Courtesy photo
Ray Plummer, a BFUHS Senior, is learning diesel truck mechanics with the Advantage Truck Group in Westminster, via the Work-Based Learning Program.

The workplace as classroom

Work-Based Learning program at Bellows Falls Union High School prepares students for a variety of careers

BELLOWS FALLS — Heather Waryas is coordinator of Bellows Falls Union High School’s Work Based Learning Program, which put students into actual work situations to learn the skills needed to develop a career.

The work-based learning idea is not new — students have apprenticed in the community for centuries. It has had any number of names, depending on the culture or country: apprenticeship, internship, on-the-job training, work integrated training, vocational education, and others.

But this ancient training technique just might be part of the answer to a serious problem facing the country.

In technically skilled manual trades like carpenters, electricians, and mechanics, and others fields such as nursing, firefighting, policing, accounting, cooking, and journalism, there is a need for new workers. This program can give students an early start toward a career.

Waryas, whose position has been newly expanded to full-time, said that 26 local businesses have been involved in the BFUHS program, “going above and beyond” to help make the program work. She said that 25% of the school’s students have been “actively engaged” in the program.

Taking students out of the classroom and exposing them earlier in their educational years to actual work situations is receiving greater and greater stress in our local school systems.

One business owner described it in very practical terms: “It’s being around people who get up and go to work every day.”

What is a successful education?

“The success of a high school is routinely measured by what percentage of students go on to college or secondary education,” Waryas said, “Yet there’s really no follow-up on how many graduate from college, what they have for careers, or how happy they are with their choices.”

Waryas said that the work-based learning model is taking a different approach.

“What means success for our students,” she said, “is that they find their why. Why am I going to school? Why am I studying this subject? Why do I have to do homework? Why is it important that I show up to school and get to classes on time?”

The school’s goal is for all students to have a career plan for after graduation, far beyond simply a general plan for some students to get into the college of their choice.

“Based on their interests and skill sets, we want to help all students develop concrete career goals,” Waryas explained. “The key to that is supporting our students as they explore possible avenues of work that interest them.”

This approach rejects the old paradigm that intellectually gifted students should be put on the fast track to college, leaving students who may be struggling in a school setting to find work in the trades or services — a model that often doesn’t consider the skills and interests of the individual student.

Excellent paying careers

Giving students a much broader view of what careers are open to them has become increasingly attractive in recent years as the wages for manual and technically skilled workers have more than held their own. Pay rates for skilled workers with on-the-job training often start higher than for many college graduates.

In many skilled labor and technical fields, interns and apprentices are paid as they learn, so they develop a career while earning a good living and without the burden of student loan debt.

Such occupations include construction managers, power line workers, machinists, electricians, masons, welders, heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) technicians, building inspectors, mechanics, plumbers, and others in dozens of technical fields. In general, they make far above median wages, and six-figure incomes are not unusual.

Many of these trades also offer them greater opportunities for launching their own businesses.

Springfield Fire Chief Paul Stagner is a strong supporter of the Work Based Learning Program, bringing students into his department to work with EMTs and firefighters.

“It’s something I’ve been trying to do for a while,” Stagner said. “The pilot program this year kind of fell together very nicely. It gives students a chance to experience what it’s like to be in the emergency services.”

With a serious shortage in firefighting and emergency medical staff, Stagner said, “I think this program is critical to our future.”

“Starting pay here for a firefighter/EMT is $22 an hour,” he said. “And your training is paid for. A five-year employee makes a $55,000 yearly base pay with excellent benefits. With overtime there is no limit, and the overtime available is insane.”

Tyler Sprague, a senior attending BFUHS and an intern at Springfield Fire Department, said he has accumulated just over 250 hours of experience since September. He attended the Windham Regional Career Center’s protective services program last year.

“My daily routine involves station duties, truck checks, and running emergency calls,” said Sprague, whose career goal is become a full-time firefighter and paramedic.

He said that the department has also been very helpful in getting him involved with trainings and department-related activities, like parades. His colleagues also have been very helpful with supporting him in taking continuing education such as an EMT class and Firefighter 1 preparation.

“The Work-Based Learning program is absolutely one of the most important programs available at our school,” Sprague said. “I’ve gained incredibly important experience at an earlier age than most people do.”

Stagner noted that the program is also beneficial to local businesses and services such as the fire department.

“As far as the fire department goes, getting young people involved with daily operations and training makes them that much more of a prepared candidate for hiring,” he said. “It has also helped me build a far more extensive network of mentors and peers that will last me my entire career.”

Jim Smith, owner of J&M Auto in Bellows Falls and a Rockingham volunteer firefighter, said that his fire company has four BFUHS seniors in the program, most of whom are on track to become full members once they turn 18. He also has two seniors working at his garage.

“They have done an outstanding job,” Smith said. “This is a very impressive group of young guys.”

Smith said that the students ask questions, which is a positive sign. “It’s a beneficial program if the kids’ hearts are in it.”

He noted that the opportunity for skilled trades people “is huge nowadays. All these kids need to realize you can make a really good living learning a skilled trade and getting really good at it.”

Training limitations

Smith said that he and other employers in the program are limited in what he can have the students do. Some of the limitations are defined by law, depending on a student’s age and the field; others are just common sense and good business practices.

“I’m limited in what I can have them do hands-on,” Smith explained — but the program is working fine for him.

“Auto mechanics is changing rapidly,” he said. “One-to-one training is the best.”

He noted that no one wants anyone not fully qualified and fully supervised working on their vehicle, and the businesses cooperating with the Work Based Learning Program all realize that.

Nate Leslie, service manager with Advantage Truck Group in Westminster, said that the program has been a real help for his diesel repair company.

“This program has been helpful for our location here in Westminster,” he said. “We have two full-time employees who came out of this program and are currently working in the shop generating revenue and enjoying a fulfilling career.”

Leslie compared the training to teaching medical students in a hospital, and he agreed with Smith that the one-on-one approach is key.

“Students start by observing the techs,” he said; after evaluation, if a student shows interest and aptitude, “they will quickly be working on the vehicles with the technician.”

Leslie said the company’s work with the school program has been a success.

“The Work Based Learning program is an excellent program,” he said. “It gives the students that know they will be involved in the trades an early experience of what it is all about in any given field.”

“A heavy-duty diesel technician is not [as] easy to find these days as they once were,” Leslie said. “This program allows students to decide whether or not this is a good fit.”

Waryas agreed, and said that students learn that “a successful experience now doesn’t mean you’re going to like it all” or that there won’t be parts that are not so enjoyable. Another real-world lesson.

Real-life working skills: more than turning a wrench

Jenna Dolloph is a senior at Bellows Falls Union High School. She is planning on studying automotive body work after high school while also working on a business degree.

“In December of 2022 I shadowed for a day at Key Collision in Keene, New Hampshire,” she said. “I had such a great day learning about each of the steps in the process, each person’s part in the process, as well as learning more about body work overall.”

She said it gave her the opportunity to grasp the overall concept and see what a day in the job was like, and whether she could see herself doing it in the future. “All the employees were so kind and supportive,” Dolloph said, “and gave me good advice as a female looking to get into a typically male-dominated field.”

Dolloph sees a lot of value in the Work Based Program. “I definitely think the Work Based Program is a very beneficial thing,” she said, “as it allows students to get exposed to new jobs, figure out their likes and dislikes. I see no problems with Work Based Programs and I think more students should utilize it to see what’s out there for jobs they may be interested in; it’s overall a great opportunity.”

Both school personnel and the employers remarked on the key skills they want to develop in the kids — skills that can be hard ones to teach: how to be a good employee and how to excel in customer relations.

Classes in job readiness skills cover such topics as demeanor and dress, interacting socially, and building confidence. Employers put emphasis on developing the students’ people skills.

J & M Auto also runs a busy towing service, and Smith said the students go on the road with his tow truck crew. “It teaches them to have an interest in people,” he said. “I think that’s more important — how to deal with the public.”

Smith noted that going out to an accident scene, often when people are at their worst, is an education all on its own. It’s a chance to “go out there, see what’s going on, and learn how to react,” he said.

Leslie stated that effort, attitude, attendance, and punctuality are vital work skills that the students need to develop.

“If no effort is given, then what’s the point, right?” he said.

“Attitude is a huge part of our business, where there is a lot of stress,” he said, noting that a customer whose truck is in the shop is unable to work and make money with the vehicle. So for the employee, “a poor attitude will not help anything.”

Attendance is a huge factor for workers, Leslie said.

“The student needs to learn that not only are they here to learn, but also to help,” he said. “Poor attendance would not help.”

“If we are left waiting around for the student to show up and they are late, we treat it as if they are an employee,” Leslie added.

The effort pays off.

“Many students become paid employees even while still in their work-based program,” Leslie said.

And work-based students soon learn a valuable real-world lesson: Not showing up, or showing up late, doesn’t just mean a poor grade or warnings for being tardy. It can mean you are out of the program and out of a paying job.

“It teaches them real-world, real-time work ethics,” Leslie said. “Just waking up to go to school and going through the motions isn’t enough. Being depended on to show up for work to increase uptime for our customers give the students drive to show up and help get the truck out of the shop.”

He said he knows from experience that these types of programs are “very” effective. In high school, he was involved in a co-op/work release program where he was able “to get to work two, sometimes three, class blocks early.”

“I figured out at a young high-school age that this was the career I was going to pursue,” Leslie said. “Fast forward 18 years later. I’ve got 10 years on the floor and now eight as a manager.”

“I have no regrets and really have to thank these types of programs for an early start,” he said.

Embedded learning

Students in the Work Based Learning program can take a number of elective courses, either at the school or at the workplace.

Alexander Leonard, a senior at BFUHS, is a volunteer firefighter in Rockingham and is in the work-based program at J & M Auto, where he spends half of every school day. He said that for every 100 hours of work in the program, students are credited with one elective.

Some programs that use a lot of math or English or writing skills can also help satisfy some of the elective requirements.

“This is a great opportunity,” Leonard said. “You can get a good idea of career options with hands-on learning.”

“Being a mechanic has always been an interest of mine,” he said. “And after I graduate, I’m going to attend the Southern Maine Community College Fire Science Program.”

Noah Cherubini, a Green Mountain Union High School senior, is in the Health Sciences Program at the River Valley Technical Center in Springfield.

“I think it’s an amazing program,” said Cherubini. On this day, he was at the Springfield Fire Department, doing observation with the EMT staff there.

“You get a real taste of what the job is all about,” he said. “I think it’s amazing. You’re going to class every day knowing that you’re going to have so many opportunities to go out and get hands-on experience.”

Cherubini’s plan is to become an EMT following graduation.

Chief Stagner said he wishes he could take on more students, but is limited by “extreme understaffing.” He had high praise for Sprague, who has worked for hundreds of hours with his department. He said he would be looking for “feedback from Tyler” to make the program even better.

“I am excited for the future of developing the program and recruiting the next students who will get the honor of working with the department,” Sprague said.

“I think that creating an interview process with several candidates would be highly beneficial for the department to get a chance, and for the kids who don’t get accepted, a valuable experience with rejection at an interview,” the fire chief added.

Another real life lesson.

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