Metro-East News

Metro-east districts are looking to students to help build, renovate schools. Here’s how.

Belleville East’s girls softball teammates see their new locker room for the first time

Belleville East's girls softball team see their new locker room, built by fellow students, for the very first time in late March.
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Belleville East's girls softball team see their new locker room, built by fellow students, for the very first time in late March.

Last month at Belleville East High School, members of the girls’ softball team closed their eyes together and did a count down in unison. When they opened their eyes again, they got their first look at a brand new 1,500-square-feet, 30-person locker room made just for them.

Unlike all of the school’s other locker rooms, this one was special: It was the first one made for students, by students.

For the past two years Belleville East’s building trades program, led by instructor Bruce Deibert, has been building the facility, which includes restrooms and a concession stand. Students learned the skills needed to tackle the project and executed it, starting with the blueprints and ending with the last screws.

Every part of the locker room is student-made construction.

Deibert said the program tackles two fronts — the school’s need for new accommodations and a student demand for trade skills they may use in their future careers.

“You kill two birds with one stone,” he said. “It (building with students) takes longer than if you had a contractor come out and do it, but the education is priceless. I really believe that.”

Building trades classes focus on carpentry, bricklaying, plumbing and other trade skills. The aim of the courses is to prepare students for the workforce straight out of high school.

Deibert has worked in building trades since 2006. Before coming to Belleville East he ran the program at Highland High School for seven years before the program was cut due to budgetary issues.

Since his hiring in 2016, Deibert’s students have helped build several projects around the Belleville East campus. This semester, 47 students helped with the softball locker room.

When students are in class, if they’re not learning about a trade skill, they’re putting what they’ve learned to practice on one of the many projects the class works on each week.

Belleville East students
Belleville East students in the building trades program work on the early stages of the girl softball team’s 30-person locker room. Provided

Deibert says the program’s courses, which can be taken as dual credit courses that go toward the Southwestern Illinois College’s construction program, offers students a chance to learn basic trades skills. Some of those students may even go on and hopefully, he said, meet the growing need for skilled laborers.

“The trades are in such dire need right now for people to go out there and work, so it gives students a great opportunity,” he said. “Contractors are looking for men and women who are interested in working, have some work ethic, can show up on time and have some basic skills.”

Earlier this month, Bloomberg reported that the 3.8 U.S. unemployment rate has increased the skilled labor shortage that has been growing for years.

Currently, at Belleville East, his students have completed the softball building, are in the process of building ticket booths at the football stadium and are working on a variety of smaller projects.

Highland bringing back trades classes

But soon, Deibert plans to return to Highland High School.

The school board there recently resurrected the building trades program, which is set to return next school year because of mounting student demand and requests from local businesses. While Deibert will be leaving Belleville East the end of the school year in May, the program will live on, he said. The administration plans to keep it functioning the way it has the past three years.

While discussing the approval of the program late last year, Highland board member Robert Miller said not being able to train local students for local jobs most in demand is “embarrassing.”

Not long after, the board rehired Deibert and began plotting what the program might look like. As it stands, Deibert said the courses will start out much like the Belleville East program, at least in its first year.

Students will build on campus, learning basic skills and completing rehab and small projects. However, Deibert said he hopes to have students building houses again in Highland in the next year or so.

He said that was a core part of the program before it was cut in 2013.

Highland High School Principal Chris Becker said building trades programs, especially in a construction-focused town like Highland, are in demand and can have a big impact.

Before the program was restored, the school district released a survey of students that analyzed what students most wanted as new programs came back to the school. Trades classes were among the most popular.

According to the district’s report, that demand paired with union and employer’s demand for workers made the program a top-candidate for refunding. It also allows students a path to a “great” paying job with benefits straight out of high school.

Last week, Bloomberg also reported that while getting a bachelor’s degree is generally more lucrative in the long run, middle-skill trades jobs can surpass $100,000 salaries a year in many cases.

“We worked really hard to try to reestablish it because there’s definitely a demand,” Becker said. “The research is pretty clear that in the area, the Metro East and nationwide that there are lots of holes out there for these types of jobs.”

A major problem, Becker said, is that people who want the trades jobs often don’t have the experience needed. Even the basic skills, as Deibert said, can put a student ahead in the hiring process.

“There’s just not enough qualified people being turned out,” Becker said. “We get calls periodically from local business or trades or constructions looking for kids to come into work because they just can’t fill the slots.

Deibert said some of his past students would often take summer jobs working construction because of the high demand. He said it was a good way for them to get even more experience and some cash in their pockets.

He said students are eager to get involved and he expects the Highland program will grow as much as the Belleville East program did under his tenure. That comes from the reward of building something their children might one day use.

“They will be able to come back when they have their kids and say hey ‘when I was here I built this,’ ” Deibert said.

Kavahn Mansouri covers government accountability for the Belleville News-Democrat, holding officials and institutions accountable and tracking how taxpayer money is spent.
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