In a scene reminiscent of athlete signings, 25 seniors at G.C. Clap Career & Technical Center in Levittown inked letters of intent to continue their career paths in a range of training programs, including apprenticeships, colleges and jobs.
The event — the National Signing Day — was organized by Klein Tools Inc., which sponsored the signing of more than 3,000 students nationally. Eight Long Island schools took part. With the Levittown event scheduled for 8 a.m., soon-to-be graduates of GC-Tech, as students and faculty affectionately call it, officially became the first in the nation to sign.
Although it is part of the Levittown School District, GC-Tech also draws students from Seaford and Wantagh, as well as from districts as far afield as Hewlett and Plainview.
“Our country has a severe shortage of workers in the skilled trades,” Kristina Cuomo, a teacher in the English Language Arts Department who is also the school’s Skills USA adviser, said in her introductory address to the assembly. It is the aim of schools like GC-Tech to help train young people to fill those positions, she said.
Skills USA is a career and technical student association serving nearly 400,000 students nationwide, according to the organization’s website.
Cuomo, along with electrical technology teacher Ray Ruiz, helped organize their school’s participation in the event, according to GC-Tech Assistant Director Sally Maya. “They researched the program and filled out the application,” she said.
Cuomo said that as Skills USA adviser, she submitted an overview of the school’s programs, as well as the post-graduation paths followed by its alumni. “As a result of our interest and the number of students going into the field,” she said, “we were chosen by Klein Tools to not only receive the honor [of taking part in the signing], but also of being one out of five schools across the nation to have the ceremony streamed live via Facebook.”
GC-Tech was founded in the wake of the closure of Levittown Memorial High School in 1983, but similar programs have been offered in the district since the 1950s, Maya said.
Other districts have long had trades-focused programs. “We’ve always had classes in what used to be called ‘industrial arts,’” Seaford Schools Superintendent Dr. Adele Pecora said. “We still do. And we send students to GC-Tech.”
Students are juniors and seniors in their respective high schools. They spend half of each school day at their home schools and half at Tech, Maya said. And the school offers a range of academic classes as well. “It feels like a regular high school,” she said. GC-Tech offers training in eight broad areas, including cosmetology, culinary arts, police science and emergency management.
The shift in emphasis from college preparatory classes to skilled trades for some students represents something of a sea change in secondary education, Maya said. Since the 1960s, most high schools have sought to prepare students for college, and some community colleges adopted open admissions policies, making it possible for any high school graduate in the district to attend. But the combination of the rising cost of higher education and the lack of skilled workers in fields like construction and automotive, for example, has made the option of training for a technical career more attractive.
“I want to believe in a broader view of education,” Cuomo said, “and how a CTE” — a career technical education — “is just as viable as an academic education. I hope this shift in trend increases, because our students are learning skills our communities need.”
The price of a single year at a college or university in the U.S. now averages nearly $35,000, according to the College Board, and graduates have no guarantee of employment. They now leave school with an average of nearly $40,000 in debt, according to Forbes magazine. And CNBC reported that while unemployment among 2018 graduates was a low 2.1 percent, the average starting salary was $48,400.
Students who graduate from technical schools or complete apprenticeship programs face generally brighter prospects, automotive technology Director Mike Marino said. According to a New York Division of Labor Statistics 2016 study, the most recent year for which complete data was available, salaries in the skilled trades ranged from a low of $47,000 for construction painters to a high of $97,000 for ironworkers.
“One of our students just graduated as valedictorian from the Ohio Diesel Institute,” Marino said. Next year, she has a scholarship for advanced training at one of BMW’s automotive training programs. “She’ll be working on new BMWs,” he said. According to The Glass Door, an international employment website, average pay for starting BMW mechanics is $28 an hour, for an average annual salary of almost $59,000. “And she won’t have any school debt,” he added.
Some Tech grads go into union jobs or apprentice programs, Maya said. This means they earn while continuing their specialized education. “Our mission,” she said, “is to make sure our students leave GC-Tech with marketable skills, that they’re employable.”