Shop class teaches students how to build a better future

The high-pitched grinding of metal on metal, the whirr of saw blades ripping through cedar, the crackle of a welding arc on aluminum are all sounds of building in progress and a brighter future for Wrangell's students.

Fabrication classes, whether woodworking, metalworking or welding, give kids an alternative avenue when it comes to life beyond high school, bucking the traditional pathway of enrolling in college.

According to Alaska Department of Labor, construction managers earn an average of $50 an hour, electricians $35 an hour and welders an average of $29 to $34 an hour. A 2019 New York Times article found that Anchorage was one of five metropolitan areas with the highest share of top-paying jobs for people without traditional college degrees.

"One of the problems we're faced with in school because we've had to cut so much staff, we've really lost a lot of classes," said Winston Davies, the shop class teacher at Wrangell High School. "In the past, where there'd be two or three sections of say, biology, and those kids could take welding and then take biology somewhere else. Now there's one section of those classes offered as part of mandatory classes. So, it's welding or mandatory biology, so it's really hard to get kids in the CTE (career and technical education) classes."

Davies has been teaching metal fabrication classes for two years. Before that, he taught middle school math and science for about 17 years, often telling his students college was a necessary path.

"I'm guilty of that," he said. "When I was a math and science teacher, I was preparing my kids for a traditional postsecondary education in a university or college, and that's not for everybody. I see that. Some of the kids that really struggle in the normal ed classes are the ones that excel down here."

According to Dave Brown, the former shop class teacher, Davies was one of those kids.

"He procrastinated a fair amount, but he got stuff done," Brown said. "I'd have to get after him. I think he's bringing it back. All the stuff he's teaching up there, those kids can go right to work. There's no one to fill those (skilled labor) jobs. All over the U.S. we're seeing a shortage of skilled workers."

Brown began the boatbuilding program about 1987, averaging anywhere from 12 to 18 students per class, and he's glad to see Davies continuing it. He said it teaches kids more than just welding.

"When they do one of these boats or any project in the shops, they see things through and they can problem solve," Brown said. "It's not all automatic. With computers, the computer did all the work. When they're building a boat, they're doing a ton of math. Let's say you want to buy a house and want to fix something, everyone can use those skills."

Another of Brown's former students, Jeff Wiederspohn, took his love of learning how things work and turned that into a career in aircraft mechanics. After graduating from Wrangell in 1987, Wiederspohn joined the U.S. Air Force, then attended Spartan College of Aeronautics in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Now he's the assistant director of maintenance for NorthStar Helicopters in Juneau.

Wiederspohn recently visited Wrangell and spoke to the students about a desperate need for aircraft mechanics.

"There's a shortage across the country," he said. There is a projected shortage of about 12,000 to 14,000 mechanics in the next year, Wiederspohn said, with a need of about 132,000 by 2040. "I'm at about half strength. I should have 10 mechanics and I have five."

He said he would not only hire new mechanics, he would include a hiring bonus and other perks.

Wiederspohn has cast a nationwide net trying to recruit new mechanics and he saw some interest on the part of Wrangell students, but schooling can take anywhere from a year to two and a half years. Median pay for entry-level aircraft mechanics starts around $30 an hour, though that could increase soon due to the industry trying to attract more mechanics, he said.

Davies' students are working on all manner of projects, including boats, salmon gaff hooks and an old-school arcade game. Another student is working on the game components in Heather Howe's technology class to add to the arcade cabinet when it's finished.

Starting and completing projects is good, but Davies wants his students to know how to use the tools.

"The process is learning how to use tools, learning how to use them safely," he said. "The more tools you can get your hands on and know how to use safely and correctly, the better off you are."

Students are learning how to use milling machines and metal lathes, which Davies said haven't been used in years. The projects they are using the machines for "might not be something they do for a job, but they're using calipers. They have to be super accurate in their measurements. That's where the math comes in. They're thinking in 3D," he said. "I'm really just trying to expose kids to as many different things as possible."


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