Don Cunningham: “Trade School” is Still Needed Today

By Colin McEvoy on June 1, 2017

This column, written by LVEDC President and CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on June 1, 2017. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

The past is often prologue to tomorrow.

When my grandfather was 14, in 1934, he attended what was then called Trade School on Bethlehem’s South Side. It was a forerunner to today’s Bethlehem Area Vocational-Technical School.

During the height of the Great Depression, each morning, he’d grab his books and tool belt, and walk across Bethlehem, from the west side to the south. He’d listen for trains, and hustle across the Lehigh River railroad trestle – the same one still there today — to shorten the route. The Trade School was in the old Excelsior Building on Fourth Street. There, he learned to be an electrician.

I don’t know who decided his course of training or how. Most likely, it was his father’s decision. His father was the son of Irish immigrants, and worked in Bethlehem Steel’s sweltering hot and dirty Basic Oxygen Furnace, the BOF.

When my grandfather finished 10th grade, his dad told him he was done with school. It was time to go to work.  He’d just bought his older brother a pickup truck, a garage and a small house-wiring business, a bit of insurance to keep them both out of the BOF.

The business needed skilled labor. For the next 47 years, my grandfather worked for his brother at West Side Electric, wiring buildings across the Lehigh Valley. He was treasurer of IBEW Local 375 for 32 years. Labor-management meetings were family dinner.

He was a tradesman, a craftsman with the skills the economy and his employer needed. On his income alone, my grandparents raised six kids, owned their own home and vacationed every summer at the Jersey Shore. The skills upon which his family was built were provided free of charge to him by the Bethlehem public schools.

My grandfather has been gone for 22 years.  A lot has changed in the American economy and the world since 1934.  There is much he wouldn’t recognize today, and even less that he would tolerate, but his pathway to modest economic success still exists.

There are 18-year-olds graduating this week from high schools across the Lehigh Valley whom attended the Bethlehem Area Vocational Technical School, the Career Institute of Technology in Easton, or the Lehigh County Technical Institute in Schnecksville that have the tools to rev today’s economic engine. Whether the decision to develop a trade or technical skill was made by them or their parents, it was a wise one.

A union electrician today entering an apprenticeship makes $15 per hour right out of school. After six months, the rate is $22 an hour, or $45,000 a year. At the conclusion of the 5-year apprenticeship, a Lehigh Valley electrician earns $40 per hour, or $80,000 a year, plus benefits and pension.

Wages vary among building trades based on skill requirements. Mechanical trades, which install heating, ventilation, and air conditioning, known as HVAC, are close in wages to electricians. Welders make even more due to high demand and short supply.

The kids who go to Vo-Tech graduate with no debt, skills the economy needs and good, immediate earning-power. And, while a college degree remains the single best indicator of earning potential during a lifetime, vocational and technical skills come at little or no cost.

During my grandfather’s time, trade skills were a pathway to avoid dirty and dangerous manufacturing jobs like steelmaking. Today, with the mechanization and automation of manufacturing, the jobs are not nearly as dirty or dangerous and vocational-technical skill development is the pathway to them. Manufacturing jobs that require skills pay an average of $25 per hour to skilled workers.

Students and families are catching on. The three Lehigh Valley schools have seen growing enrollments in total during recent years. The capacity in physical space, new equipment and faculty in certain programs, however, is regularly challenged. The school districts that fund the schools tend to think of them last.

The Bethlehem Area Vocational Technical School, which serves kids from 5 school districts, has been trying for years to start a mechatronics program, a skill much-needed by today’s advanced manufacturers, but can’t get the funding. The school only has room for about 50 students a year in electrical, plumbing, precision machining, cabinetmaking and engineering. There are spots for only 40 welders. To train more students, more space, equipment and teachers are needed, which requires school district and private support. Instructors are often hard to find because private sector pay in their field is much higher.

Not only are these schools a pathway for many working class kids and the children of immigrants to realize a better life and financial future, they are the oil that keeps the wheels of the Lehigh Valley economy rolling.  Many of these students participate in skills competitions in their field as part of the national SkillsUSA program, held every year at the local, state and national level.  There is an entire group of state and national champions from the Lehigh Valley that you most likely never heard of.

For too long, it was the arts that took a backseat to sports and other activities.  That seems to have changed. A glistening new Charter High School for the Art exists in south Bethlehem and theater students take center stage each year as the region appropriately recognizes the best in our high school theater with the televised Freddy Awards.

It’s time for us to fund, and herald, those high school kids who dedicate their time in high school to developing the skills to better themselves and our economy.  Just as it was 80 years ago, the “trade school” of today is the pathway to tomorrow.


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