AUSTINTOWN, Ohio – Erika Baker calculates measurements for a wooden pedestal she and classmates are building in the skilled trades program at Austintown Fitch High School.
When Baker, a senior, took a woodshop class as a freshman, she aspired to be a science teacher. Now she plans to enter the trades.
“I’m learning all of the necessary steps that I need to go the way I want to go,” Baker says. “If I hadn’t taken these classes freshman year and continued it, I would not be here saying I am going to go to the trades. I would be settling for a career that I don’t want. So I am very happy that I took this class.”
Baker found that she enjoyed working with her hands and does not enjoy sitting in a classroom. She also likes working with clay and wood and is considering an apprenticeship program after high school.
Baker began a variety of projects that stretched her creativity after Jim Fisher took over the program following the retirement of Shawn Irwin in June 2021. Fisher expanded the program, taking it beyond woodshop to having students learn the basics of many skilled trades as they completed group and individual projects that interested them.
Some examples of projects students are creating include a lawn-sized lighthouse with electric wiring, a wooden medieval weapon, a variety of tables with various types of legs and beveled edges. As one student finished her projects as the semester drew to an end, she built a small pet-cat house.
Baker has created a serving platter with wooden handles and resin, a table, a framed box with mesh for hanging her earrings and she has begun the process of turning a wooden serving bowl on a lathe. She and some classmates are working on a project requested by Principal Christopher Berni, who would like to display some of the bricks the district saved after the middle school building was torn down in 2017.
Baker says they are basing the design on one she found researching online and is calculating the measurements needed while two other classmates, Chris Mendez and Mason White, work to secure bricks to a wooden wall structure that will be on the pedestal. Eventually those bricks will be cemented. Before that, however, Baker says the bricks must be secured.
Working on real projects is a big part of what Fisher has brought to the skilled trades classes he teaches at the school.
Students begin by learning shop safety and the proper way to use the machines in the shop. They eventually work their way through framing, plumbing, welding, electrical and tile work.
“By the time they get through the two-year program, they should have an understanding of anything in the skilled trades,” Fisher says.
One group of Skilled Trades II students is currently involved in remodeling a kitchen in the room that once housed the home economics cooking classes. They tore out all the old cabinets and are putting down a new tile floor, countertops, building cabinets with rice door panels and adding backsplash.
Downstairs at the high school, another group of students is working on a new set for the Falcons media studio. Taking components of furniture they received from WKBN-TV, students are busy repurposing an anchor desk, creating a flat black front with lighting strips that can change colors to give it different looks for a variety of broadcasts. In addition, they framed and built a stage for the desk, carpeted it and are installing a blue screen wall where students can shoot and then edit in backgrounds digitally.
One project several of the students mentioned they are proudest of is the 9/11 Memorial archways the skilled trades program rebuilt last year.
Projects like the 911 Memorial, Fisher says, helped the school to gain exposure, get the students involved, and give them a sense of community and school pride.
Some students also are working on a new table for the school board to use during its meetings.
Students learn about determining the materials needed, Fisher says, budgeting for the project and how to correct their mistakes. He encourages the students to listen to the customer, ask questions to clarify the customer’s specifications for the project and correct anything not up to their standards before they sign off on the job.
The digital media production teacher and Falcon media general manager, Gina Cardillo, has been evaluating the work of the class in her studio. She notes the broadcast desk needs more work because there is texture to the finish and the studio lights require no texture. And the blue screen color, when the students get to that point in the project, will have to be exact for it to work.
“They’re great kids,” Cardillo says, noting all of them are going to school for different things and most are very meticulous in addition to being smart.
Ian Teeters, a senior in the program, is familiar with the skilled trades. His father is a sheet metal worker.
“This is definitely enlightening me to all the different skills in the trades,” Teeters says, adding he may begin as a union sheet metal worker himself after school. He aspires to be trained as an operator of heavy equipment.
From a young age, he says, “I have been working with and helping [my dad] do little stuff. But it has still introduced me to this whole lifestyle and prepared me for what the future is going to be like,” Teeters says, adding he feels confident that he now has a variety of skills to one day do things at his own home.
Another senior, Trent Pregi, says he now knows how to lay carpet, the proper distance to lay boards to make them safe and up to code and how to build a table.
“I plan to go to college for mechanical engineering,” Pregi says. “But it’s always is nice to have the trades as a backup if I don’t like that.”
Another senior, Ethan Measmer took the Woods I class this year because one of his friends was taking it and he had aspirations of learning to make knife handles and refurbish things, like he sees in YouTube videos he enjoys.
“I would like to be able to build my own furniture,” Measmer says, specifying he wants to create strong furniture that will hold. “Mr. Fisher is a great teacher. I give him props.”
Measmer is involved in the ROTC and plans to enlist in the military. But one of the speakers from the Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics, who spoke to the skilled trades classes, further expanded his ideas about his future. Measmer plans to specialize in being an aircraft mechanic in the military and get paid training at PIA to further his career after his military service.
Fisher and the Educational Service Center of Eastern Ohio career-counseling program have brought a variety of people into the classroom, such as the carpenters union, industry leaders and the aeronautical school.
“All the guys who come here and talk say they have half the people they need,” Fisher says.
Michael Palm, a career counselor with the Educational Service Center of Eastern Ohio, says he knows of at least 15 students in the Austintown skilled trades program who now are interested in entering the trades after they graduate.
Following a time when wood shops were being phased out of the schools, Palm says he fully believes people are beginning to realize this instruction is important.
Palm is a certified welder with a college degree and before he became a career counselor, he worked as a production supervisor in the steel industry. He struggled to find skilled people or people willing to learn the skills.
Industry leaders are well aware of the shortages when they look to hire those with training in the various trades. In 2021, a study by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute predicted there could be 2.1 million unfilled jobs in manufacturing by 2030.
“There was a gap there,” Palm says. “People didn’t think this was important and it is.”
Palm sees his current position as a bridge between the manufacturers and businesses looking for people and the schools training the future workforce. He knows people in the building associations and unions with skilled trades apprenticeships and can connect students if they become interested in that route. If so, they can continue honing their skills while getting paid.
The Skilled Trades class in Austintown, Palm says, gives the students the resources and skill sets to do many things, including projects at their own homes such as building a deck, as side jobs or even main sources of income as a career.
“If they don’t use it for five years, it’s still in their back pocket,” Palm says.
That is exactly the attitude of another senior in the program, Konnor Hood, who has been involved in several of the projects for Falcon Media, including building the stage, the blue screen project and the broadcast desk.
“Through the skilled trades program, we’ve done everything – electrical, welding, plumbing, tile, building cabinet – pretty much any of the skilled trades you want to go into from this program,” Hood says.
Hood still plans to go to college, he adds. But he now knows he has a lot of options.
When he began to teach the skilled trades program, Fisher says he determined that he wanted students to have the opportunity to work on a variety of projects.
“The whole point of this program is to give them an introduction,” he says, adding he chose to do it this way because he wants kids to get a chance to see what they like.
“Even if they decide to go to college and then later decide they don’t want to do what they went to school to study, they still have that certification in their back pocket,” Fisher says. They can take that [credential] seal and go to a trade union and they will accept them.”
Pictured at top: Chris Mendez and Mason White work on securing the bricks to the wall before they are cemented in place for a display project being created by the students at the request of Austintown Fitch Principal Christopher Berni.