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North Medford students work along a different path

To Hal Jones, it can be boiled down to a single question. According to National Student Clearinghouse data, he points out, slightly less than one out of every four students from the Medford School District who graduated in 2014 — 22% to be exact — had earned a four-year college degree by 2020.

“So,” asks Jones, “what about the other 78%? This is our answer to that question.”

The “this” to which Jones, MSD’s Career and Technical Education and Pathways coordinator, was referring is the district’s Medford Pre-Apprenticeship for Construction Trades (MPACT) program, which was designed to prepare students for careers in the construction trades.

Aware of the need, Jones met the district’s construction technology teachers and later with local business and industry leaders such as Russ Batzer of Batzer Construction. His pitch was simple. There are students entering the workforce willing and able to work hard, but lack the skills. How about developing a pre-apprenticeship program? They said, absolutely, and the program was approved by the Bureau of Labor and Industry on March 6, six days before the schools were shut down.

The program restarted two weeks ago, COVID-style — that is to say, mostly online — with eight students. A good start, Jones says, but they have room for as many as 40, and possibly more, juniors and seniors who are interested in having access to apprenticeships and training programs that can help get them there.

College is a necessary stepping stone for many high school graduates and MSD’s Pathways program, which helps students prepare for their future by earning college credit or industry certification while still in high school, was created to help them prepare for that next, big step. But what about those students who are considering trade jobs right out of high school – future plumbers, electricians, construction workers or heating and air conditioning specialists?

Maybe they like working with their hands, or perhaps are attracted to the possibility of an early adulthood which does not include tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt.

Speaking from an empty classroom Thursday at the mostly-empty North Medford High School, Jones describes Pathways in philosophical terms.

“It’s like stepping up to the edge of a wide river,” he said, “and when our juniors and especially our seniors get there and they look at the next step, it seems way too far away, too impersonal and treacherous. And they just spend a lot of time flailing around in that. And so our job is to help create that footpath over the river for them. And that’s what the pre-apprenticeship program does.”

Daniel Smalley, a North Medford construction technology teacher, believes the program has generated interest because it opens students’ eyes to possibilities they may not have considered. According to Smalley, the prospect of making $17 an hour right out of gate can be very appealing, especially for those who enjoy the work.

His students start, Smalley said, with basic power tool safety education before diving into small projects like dog houses, chicken coops, sheds and eventually tiny houses. Students will have the opportunity to get their hands dirty in a wide range of trades — including roofing, plumbing, electrical work and metals manufacturing.

“We try to give them a little example of all the different options there are in the construction-related fields and then let them decide which one would be best for them,” Smalley said.

And sometimes, none of those are a great fit. And that’s fine, too, he added.

“Another good thing about what we’re doing is that even for those kids who don’t want to go on and do construction-related careers as a pathway, they’re learning good life skills — how to change a switch, how to change a tire,” Smalley said. “There’s a lot of things that we’re teaching through this program that even if they decide they don’t want to go on and pursue any of these careers, there are things that they’ll take with them for the rest of their lives.”

MPACT classes typically provide ample opportunity for hands-on training, but like almost everything else it has been necessarily altered by COVID-19 restrictions. Still, the program’s benefits haven’t been completely snuffed out. On Wednesday, four MPACT students attended a training seminar at Crater Lake Electrical Training Center in Central Point, an experience which North Medford junior Phaedra Ricci said was very helpful.

As the daughter of a woman who started a construction business, Ricci, 16, has been exposed to that business her entire life and that experience led her to Smalley’s construction class as a freshman. Now, she’s glad she did that and said Wednesday’s field trip confirmed what she was already feeling.

“It went really well yesterday and it’s interesting and something that I kind of want to do,” she said.

Ricci says the skills she hopes to pick up will be valuable even if she doesn’t end up working as an electrical engineer, echoing Smalley’s point about the practicality of the class.

“My mom’s even had issues where her friends are like, ‘Oh, my garage lights won’t work,’ and my mom just goes in there, touches a couple wires and it’s fixed,” Ricci said. “So a lot of it is really practical that I think everybody should know, including women. A lot of people, I feel like, don’t believe that, but I think this is great for women, too, especially single moms, single dads. It saves you money, too, especially if you have kids, a big family. It comes in handy.”

Nathan Prince, a 17-year-old senior at North Medford High, signed up for the MPACT program on the urging of his father, who pointed out that if Prince enjoys the work then, well, any scenario that allows him to sidestep about $60,000 in student loan debt is worth considering.

Prince thought about it and realized that yes, he does enjoy the work and always has.

“I’ve done woods and this construction class a bunch and I kind of like being out there doing that kind of stuff,” he said. “I’ve helped my dad a bunch with building sheds and things like that so it kind of just gave me a good idea of what I wanted to do.”

That’s music to the ears of Jones, whose hope is that the program becomes an important gateway to many more local students as it evolves.

“The thing we’ve already seen is when you have young adults who see relevance in what they’re doing, when they see a connection between learning a math concept in class, which is often done in the abstract, to connecting it with something that they’re learning in the electrical field all of a sudden you’ve got ignition,” Jones said. “You’ve got purpose.

“And so on the one hand, we’ve got students who want access to high-wage, in-demand jobs. On the other hand, we’ve got employers who are desperate for a skilled workforce, and we have had no way to connect the two in the past. None. How do you do that? Now we have a way, and that’s the way through the pre-apprenticeship program.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

Phaedra Ricci practices on an electrial training board with her teacher Daniel Smalley looking on at North Medford High School. (Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune)