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During School Closure, Brown Deer Construction Class Adapts To Prepare Students For Jobs

Courtesy of Craig Griffie
Trevon Johnson, a student in Craig Griffie's Industry Advisory class at Brown Deer High School, pictured before COVID-19 school closures.

Coronavirus-related school closures present some unique challenges to vocational education because hands-on learning isn’t possible right now. Even though their last few months of training were cut short, a Brown Deer teacher is working with his high school seniors to arrange job placements in the construction field.

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Credit Courtesy of Craig Griffie
Brown Deer High School technical education teacher Craig Griffie.

Craig Griffie is a technical education teacher at Brown Deer High School. He is the Industry Advisory program, which was developed in partnership with the Building2Learn Consortium and the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters. It provides training in construction skills with the goal of preparing students for apprenticeships right out of high school. Twelve students were participating in the voluntary, before-school program this semester.

“We have developed a program with the carpenters union where these students are learning how to do steel, studs and drywall, which is commercial style of framing out a building,” Griffie said. “It teaches them the vocabulary, the tools, the methodology that they’re using right now to build commercial buildings.”

When Brown Deer High School closed in mid-March because of coronavirus precautions, Griffie was worried about what it would mean for his students.

“Oh no, what are we going to do?” Griffie recalls thinking. “I was really sad for about a week. And then, you gotta move forward.”

Steven George, one of the Industry Advisory students, was excited about having a break when schools first closed. But after a couple weeks at home trying to adjust to online learning, George wanted to be back in school.

Credit Courtesy of Craig Griffie
Brown Deer High School students in Craig Griffie's Fall 2019 Construction 2 class, which is a precursor to the Industry Advisory program. Steven George is pictured at far left.

“When it kept going and going, it was like, ‘OK, we wanted a break from school but we ain’t mean like this now,” George said. “It was the first time I ever wanted to be at school for real.”

Griffie couldn’t continue hands-on training. But he could still try to set students up with apprenticeships after graduation.

“Obviously, I can’t ship them all steel, studs and drywall and have them frame something up in their garage,” Griffie said. “So we switched to job interview preparation. We did a lot of resume work, we did a lot of practice interviewing.”

"I can't ship them all steel, studs and drywall and have them frame something up in their garage. So we switched to job interview preparation." - Craig Griffie

During a normal school year, Griffie organizes an interview day in which students talk with local contractors about apprenticeship opportunities. Griffie worked with about a dozen construction companies to move the interviews online. On a morning in late April, each student did around five Zoom videoconference interviews.

Some of them, including George, were offered jobs. George was offered a carpenter apprenticeship with CG Schmidt, a construction company based in Milwaukee.

But Griffie says some of the contractors are hesitant to take on new employees in the current economy.

“Some of the companies who interviewed, they wanted to support this program, but then at the end of the day they said, ‘I would bring this kid on, but I can’t do it right now,' ” Griffie said.

He says most of the students will receive conditional job offers in which the student will be hired if the economy allows. The students will participate in a virtual "industry signing day" on May 21.

Griffie is concerned about how the pandemic will affect his technical education classes in the future. He’s trying to find online tools that could be incorporated into the construction programs. 

“We’ve been able to change the culture at Brown Deer to look at trades as a career,” Griffie said. “COVID-19 is going to challenge us to find new ways to partner and find new skills we can teach in different ways.”

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Emily is WUWM's education reporter and a news editor.