KOIN Channel 6 News covers NIETC hosting the first Union Apprentice Teacher's Workshop. Watch Video
Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from The Oregonian. For more Oregon news, subscribe to The Oregonian at Oregon Live.
Libbie Rorabaugh bends and curves the copper wiring into a switch and a light bulb.
She is sitting in an electrician's class Friday morning, learning a full set of trade skills along with 80 others at the NECA-IBEW Electrical Training Center in Northeast Portland.
Rorabaugh is not, however, an aspiring electrician, lineman or roofer. Rather, she's a high school career counselor.
No, her school isn't forcing counselors into double-duty as maintenance workers because of the economy. Instead, Rorabaugh is part of an educators' workshop in which local union journeymen offered hands-on experience with trade professions.
The reason? Many students don't consider a career in a trade because they're only told about college, said John Nelsen, who organized this first Union Apprenticeship Teacher's Workshop. The program exposes counselors first-hand to other life paths, allowing them to bring the education back to their students.
"Educators all have one thing in common, when they made the decision to teach they had to go to college," Nelsen said. "Most have never had this kind of hands-on experience with construction -- many have never swung a hammer."
So to inform educators, Nelsen has them spend the day bending pipes, soldering metal and jackhammering a concrete block to dust. The program, with plans to be held annually, gives educators a feel for an apprenticeship in eight represented fields.
"I don't think students realize the advantage a program like this offers," said Rorabaugh, who works at Vancouver's Heritage High School. "This could be a wonderful profession for some students."
The biggest problem in generating interest, Nelsen said, is that many educators look down on trade schools. He said they think of them as somewhere kids with bad grades and bad work ethics can go, but he said that isn't the case.
The apprenticeship programs are not interested in dropouts, he said.
The program, and the participating contractor companies, have high standards. Students must have a C grade average or better and complete an aptitude test before even being considered for an oral interview.
Of more than 1,000 recent applicants, the program accepted 45 apprentices.
"It's not the path of least resistance," said Rod Belisle, director of the electrical training program.
The apprentice program has a zero-tolerance policy on unexcused absences, regularly does drug tests and uses performance evaluations.
The curriculum isn't easy, either. When five counselors sat down to a set of everyday rigging problems that power-line technicians face, the classroom felt more like a physics class with a mixture of trigonometry and geometry. Out of six questions, the class got one right.
But the rigorous education is worth it. Depending on the field, apprentices can make more than $60,000 a year and earn full benefits. The training centers also never take on more apprentices than available jobs.
Erin Hale, a counselor at Marshall High School, said the program could be great to the at-risk kids with whom she works. Many haven't been exposed to trade work, she said, but from what she saw, an apprenticeship could be the opportunity they need.
"I think students have a lot of hopes and dreams," Hale said. "They just don't know what they could be."