If only she’d brought her welder’s mask, Olivia Perkins must have thought last month in Olympia.
As Gov. Jay Inslee talked about apprenticeships and technical education during his State of the State speech, he turned toward Perkins and beckoned her to stand.
“My dad thought I was going to faint,” said Perkins, a senior at Shadle Park High School.
She didn’t, and now she’s become a poster child for a statewide program that links high school students who don’t plan on attending college with apprenticeships and other training programs.
“Our goal is nothing short of meaningful career training for anyone who wants it,” Inslee said of the Career Connect program launched in 2017.
No one wants it more than Perkins, who took advantage of that program by learning welding to help create her metal artwork.
The pieces are at once beautiful and fanciful. They include dragons and delicate roses, the latter intricately assembled.
“You just have to heat it up and bend it with pliers,” said Perkins, making it sound easy. It isn’t.
“I fell in love with it,” said Perkins, who got her start in metal shop at Glover Middle School and hasn’t looked back as she hopes to turn her passion into a vocation.
She isn’t alone. In Spokane and around the state, thousands of well-paying technical jobs remain unfilled – much the same as 30 years ago, when the state began to cultivate Microsoft and other high-tech companies.
In 2017, Inslee formed the Career Connect Washington Task Force to examine the future of jobs and employees in Washington.
Manufacturers reported a lack of employees and the need to recruit from out of state, leading to a tough conclusion.
“People think students just graduate and they’re work-ready,” said Kara Breuer, a health sciences instructor in the Ridgefield, Washington, Career Connect program. “They’re not.”
At the same time, Perkins and others have concluded a college education isn’t the best investment for everyone.
“I think one of the main reasons is that kids want to go to these four-year college programs because school has always been like, ‘This is what you need to do to succeed,’ ” Perkins said.
“Schools have been pushing this for so long now, and it’s not true,” she said. “I’ve met so many people who are only high school graduates and they’re doing so well and they’re happy with what they do.”
Perkins got her big break last summer.
Among the biggest statewide programs is the Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee, a nonprofit that is working to fill thousands of openings in the aerospace industry as older workers retire.
That dovetails nicely with teacher Tony Anselmo’s aerospace class at Shadle Park, Perkins’ school.
Perkins spoke with representatives from AJAC. “They were the ones who showed me the internship at Wagstaff,” Perkins said.
Wagstaff Inc., a family-owned manufacturer in Spokane Valley that builds custom industrial equipment for aluminum producers, has more than 400 employees worldwide.
It works with companies to transform molten aluminum into solid shapes for processing into products like cans, foil and airplane bodies.
Wagstaff is a leading partner in the Production &and Manufacturing Academy, a collaboration which also involves Greater Spokane Incorporated, the East Valley School District and the Spokane Workforce Council.
Perkins was among 20 participants who were selected from a field of 71 applicants.
The academy, which began in July, offered an intensive four-week course in production and manufacturing for incoming high school juniors and seniors.
“The goal behind this is to give the kids exposure to the whole manufacturing and production process,” Wade Larson, director of human resources for Wagstaff, told The Spokesman-Review last summer.
For Perkins, it did even more.
Through the academy, she won a $5,300 industry scholarship funded by Altek Inc., Kaiser Aluminum and Wagstaff.
This fall, she’ll use that money to attend Spokane Community College.
“I want to take more welding so I can make my artwork even better,” Perkins said.
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