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CPS teens get building trades training: 'College isn't for everyone'

Quintin Scott graduated Sunday from Chicago’s Crane Medical Prep High School with a head start to become a professional welder and a direct pipeline to Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

The two met in March during a trades job fair at McCormick Place, where Lightfoot passed her phone number to Scott and encouraged him to keep in touch.

Scott’s teacher, Robert Green, said he asked Scott to see those digits. He said, ‘Oh no, Mr. Green, I can’t show you this number,’” Green recalled with a chuckle. “I said, ‘You’re a smart kid, man.’”

Scott has become the face of Chicago Builds, a two-year Chicago Public Schools construction training program for upperclassmen. He plans to forgo thousands of dollars in college scholarship offers to pursue a five-year apprenticeship program with Chicago Pipefitters Local 597. If he completes the program and becomes a journeyman, Scott could be making $54 an hour.

CPS anticipates 32 Chicago Builds students will graduate this year, with 26 entering trade employment or continuing their training. Those who have worked with Scott say he stands out among this group because of his maturity, work ethic and commitment to welding.

“He’s a rare individual. He’s dedicated. He’s motivated. I mean, he’s everything you want in a worker,” Local 597 Admissions Director Adam Sutter said.

Sutter said his colleagues told him, “You gotta get more kids like this out here.”

Chicago Builds dates back to 2016, when the Board of Education approved its launch at Dunbar Vocational Career Academy. The program is meant to serve 120 students each school year, with half from Dunbar and half from outside the Bronzeville high school. The capital budget for the 2016-17 school year included $4.4 million for new labs and equipment for Chicago Builds, at the time called Chicago’s first comprehensive trade program.

Isaac Carter, who used to be campus manager for Chicago Builds, said the initiative was the brainchild of former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and US Rep. Bobby Rush. They wanted to develop a talent pool for the construction industry and create more options for graduating students. Dunbar was selected as the home for this program, Carter said because of its roots as a vocational technical school and its central location. Students spend part of their day at their own high school and travel to Dunbar for these classes.

“I think the most difficult thing was getting the word out to different schools across the district and also figuring out, how do we break down the barriers of transportation? … What times of day to host it? How does it fit into the various bell schedules across the district?” said Carter, who left CPS last year to work with the Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency in Michigan.

There are now 82 students in Chicago Builds, which costs $1 million annually to run, according to CPS.

In their first year, teens take an introduction to construction course and complete a 10-week rotation in each of the career pathways: electrical, carpentry, heating and cooling, and welding.

Hands-on instruction proved to be difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic when CPS buildings were closed.

The district was remote for most of Scott’s junior year, his first year in Chicago Builds. Green said while other students struggled to learn from home, Scott showed up to class, turned on his camera, paid attention and participated. Early coursework focuses on how to operate machinery safely.

Another key component of Chicago Builds is the summer work experience between the first and second years. Scott interned last summer with the Pipefitters Union, where Sutter said he “blew it out of the water. They were impressed with him right away.” Scott said he “did whatever they asked me,” including cutting pipes, working with different saws and cleaning up around the shops. The union even hired him full time for an extra month past his internship.

Scott applied for the Pipefitters apprenticeship program, where pay is said to start around $22 an hour. Sutter said acceptances for the class beginning in July will be announced soon. Scott has a “really, really good shot at getting selected,” Sutter said.

CPS said Scott — a varsity basketball player who boasts a 3.14 grade-point average — received about a dozen college acceptance letters, with a few offering scholarship money for a combined amount of $215,000. The Auburn Gresham resident said he chose the pipe fitters over college because he’s familiar with the training.

“College isn’t for everyone,” Scott said. The trades are “another career pathway to take a look at.”

The trade publication Industrial Safety and Hygiene News reported in 2019 that there were nearly half a million more jobs available in the skilled trades than workers who had the skills to fill those positions. That number is expected to rise to 2 million within a decade.

The application for fall entry into Chicago Builds is open to 11th and 12th grade students. Paperwork is due June 30. There are no minimum academic requirements for admission, though priority is given to rising juniors.

South Shore resident Mekyel Applewhite, who graduated from the Chicago Builds program in 2018, said he is three years into a five-year apprentice program with IBEW Local 134 for aspiring electricians. Applewhite said he recently bumped into a fellow Chicago Builds alumnus on a job. He called the life-changing program.

“I wouldn’t say that I didn’t want to go to college, but I didn’t want to jump right into taking out a lot of loans and everything. So it was a great path for me because I actually started making money — more money than I ever had made,” Applewhite said, noting that he earns more than $62,000 a year.

“It’s something new every day. You’re never doing the same thing. It’s like a never-ending learning experience.”

tswartz@tribpub.com

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