Trade Schools and Apprenticeships Are Making a Comeback

Why some students are rethinking the conventional college path and the value of hands-on experience.

As a workforce development expert, Remick is often in touch with Margaret Chung, principal of the Arlington Career Center, exchanging information about jobs that are needed, and jobs that will be.

“It’s a matter of staying up to date,” says Chung, whose program (an extension of Arlington Public Schools) emphasizes work-based learning. In some cases, the Career Center curriculum allows APS high school students to earn industry credentials and college credits simultaneously. “We make sure that our programs are relevant—not just popular, but relevant in truly preparing students for the workforce.”

Many Career Center students do go on to four-year colleges, Chung says, and they may even have a leg up, having gained real-world experience through apprenticeships.

This year, 199 students are enrolled in Arlington Tech, a full-day interdisciplinary program at the Career Center that focuses on real-world problem solving in environmental, ecological and engineering fields. Now in its third year, the program expects to eventually accommodate up to 800 students in four grades.

An additional 766 students are spending part of their school day taking Career Center classes in specialties such as auto repair, child care, fiber optics, electrical engineering, physical therapy, forensic technology and other high-demand fields. There’s a cybersecurity classroom on the first floor, and the woodworking studio includes a CNC (Computer Numerical Control) router for cutting metal and wood. The auto side includes a virtual SIM sprayer for paint jobs.

The technology component is both relevant and essential, Partridge says, given that digital systems have become part of the knowledge base not only in fields like cybersecurity, but also for jobs that used to be purely mechanical, like auto repair and HVAC systems.

Jim Moore, owner of Mr. Moore’s Barber Shop, chats with Langston High School principal Cleveland James. Photo by Benjamin C. Tankersley.

The other critical puzzle piece for today’s career seekers? Soft skills—as in communication, work ethic and professionalism.

Arlington County Board member Erik Gutshall, owner of Clarendon Home Services, says his home remodeling and maintenance company looks for candidates who are handy with a set of tools and have a basic knowledge of home repair, but they also need the ability to assess and finesse a situation, and communicate with customers. “Not everybody can work with their hands and learn the basic carpentry and handyman stuff that we do,” he says. “We’re willing to train. But being able to learn our procedures, that has to do with job readiness.”

Apprenticeships appear to be regaining currency in the marketplace. Jim Moore, owner of Mr. Moore’s Barber Shop on Lee Highway, says there are certain aptitudes that only on-the-job experience can teach. He began his career as an apprentice, learning from his father, the original owner of Mr. Moore’s. His dad’s was the first head of hair he ever cut, he says, and his father, now 85, still has a full head of it. But “the barber business is about more than cutting hair,” he says. It requires social intelligence. “It’s about building relationships. It’s not as easy as you’d think finding someone with the right integrity and character.”

There is something to be said for learning by doing, says Harrison Edwards, owner of My Painter, LLC, an Arlington residential and commercial painting company. A Yorktown High School graduate, Edwards’ first painting job was as a kid, tackling all of the fences on his family’s Culpeper farm. Now he looks for applicants with similar hands-on experience and the ability to fit in with a team.

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