Ready to work

Area high school students sign letters of intent with local companies on ‘Build My Future Day’

South Tama County seniors Cale Graff and Mason Collison, pictured with Brittnie Van Houten of Van Wall Equipment, signed their letters of intent with the company last Thursday during “Build My Future Day” in Des Moines sponsored by Iowa Jobs for America’s Graduates (iJAG). CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

DES MOINES — While most people tend to associate “Signing Day” with standout football and basketball players who choose between a number of elite colleges in deciding where they will further their academic and athletic careers, the concept is no longer exclusive to those who excel in sports.

For the last few years, the leaders of Iowa Jobs for America’s Graduates (iJAG) have held a similar event for students — including several at area schools like GMG, Marshalltown and South Tama — with plans to enter the trades after they graduate and sign on with specific companies that help pay for their training. Last Thursday, Kaleb Gill signed with ACI Mechanical in Marshalltown for welding, Jose Ochoa and Tyrel French from Marshalltown who signed with Peterbilt to become diesel mechanics, and Mason Collison and Cale Graff from STC signed with Van Wall’s location north of Toledo, also to become diesel mechanics. The area was well represented as they were five of the 14 total students who signed letters of intent.

Jill Kienzle, the iJAG specialist at STC, said Collison and Graff started working at Van Wall the summer after their sophomore year helping the full-time staff and showing that they were ready to learn, coachable and reliable. In turn, it proved to management that they were truly interested in making a career out of it, and they’ve since started working there year-round, even doing half days of school before they get work release.

The Trojan duo, who are planning to work full-time at Van Wall this summer, will head to Northeast Iowa Community College in the fall under a unique arrangement where they will take six weeks of classes and then return to work in the shop for six weeks. After the two-year educational program, which Van Wall pays for, is complete, they’ll be certified and ready to start their careers.

“There’s so much of this where businesses are seeing the value. Almost every business is starting to do these kinds of programs because they see the shortage in staff coming. It’s not a surprise. Everybody sees it,” Kienzle said. “For every 10 plumbers retiring, there’s maybe three or four coming into the workforce… So they’re trying to do everything they can. Some employers, too, are doing hands-on (training), we’ll train you, you just have to be coachable. It’s really up to the students and how involved they want to get.”

Last Thursday, high school students from around the state gathered at Build My Future Day in Des Moines, and five high school seniors — including two from South Tama County, two from Marshalltown and one from GMG — signed letters of intent to work in the trades with local employers. CONTRIBUTED PHOTOS

Another STC senior, Austin Jensen, is a full-time diesel mechanic apprentice with J.J. Nichting of Grinnell, which is the largest Case IH farm equipment dealer in Iowa, and he signed a letter with the company before Build My Future Day.

Brittany Raymond, the iJAG specialist at GMG, said kids are becoming more familiar with Signing Day after a student participated last year, and they appreciate the recognition they are receiving. And the positive feelings are mutual as companies in need of dependable and reliable workers are finding the perfect candidates.

“I think the employers get super excited for it. Anymore, it seems that the ones who have reached out, they want to be involved in the classroom, and they want to get to know our kids. They want to promote what they’re doing, so I think they get excited for this,” Raymond said.

The Marshalltown students will be heading off to the Midwest Diesel Tech academy in Sioux City, and Gill will go through training with the Iowa ABC Apprenticeship program.

For Gill, attending Build My Future this year was an extra special field trip as it culminated in a commitment to go into welding after high school.


“This year, Kaleb was dual enrolled as a high school and college student. He attended Marshalltown Community College and completed the welding program,” Raymond said. “His father, James, and brother, Kooper, both work for [Marshalltown’s ACI Mechanical] and have (had) a strong influence on him in deciding his future career path.”

During an interview following his signing ceremony, Gill reiterated his teacher’s comments about his older brother.

“[Kooper] is the person that influenced me the most to get into welding. I remember one time he was in the garage working on something and he stopped to show me some things,” he said.

But Gill said his interest in welding really took off during his freshman year of high school, when Kooper started taking welding classes through Marshalltown Community College. Gill ultimately decided to follow in his big brother’s footsteps.

After graduation, Gill said he plans to stay in the area while working for ACI Mechanical. And while he did try his hand at a few different trades during high school, he hopes to make welding his lifelong career.

“My sophomore year I did an internship at Emerson [in Marshalltown]. I thought about plumbing and electrical, but ultimately welding is what I am good at and what I liked the most,” he said.

As these opportunities become more widely known and publicized, the companies are sending representatives to career days to reach students as young as elementary and middle school aged and teach them about jobs like welding through a simulator.

Over the last several years, there’s been a conscious shift away from the idea that everyone who graduates from high school needs to attend a four-year college or university, and the state of Iowa, through programs like iJAG, is offering incentives for those who choose to take a different path — a path that can often involve little to no student debt.

“I think, for so long, college, college, college was the big push in the early 2000s, and then it became like ‘Oh, you can get training and get it paid for and make money at the same time and come out with an equally viable career and have zero debt,” said Mary McCann Fuchsen, who serves as the iJAG specialist at Marshalltown. “So that’s really appealing to a lot of our students now as they’re starting to look ahead.”

As McCann Fuchsen noted, it also encourages them to stay in Iowa and live, work and start families in the communities where they were born and raised.

No North Tama signees, but plenty of enthusiasm

Thirty-seven North Tama High School students including 14 iJAG students were able to attend this year’s Build My Future showcase in Des Moines. The career fair is one of North Tama iJAG educational specialist Carlee Warnke’s favorites, she said, due to the light it shines on a variety of post-secondary paths beyond the traditional four-year college route.

“Students are not only able to talk to professionals, but they get hands-on opportunities in multiple career fields. Exposure to careers is vital for students. Students need to see, touch, and experience as many jobs as they can in high school to really narrow in on their future career path,” she said.

While at the fair, Warnke said students were given the opportunity to weld, set up plumbing, nail shingles down, operate heavy machinery such as cranes, excavators, and nail guns, and much more. Some students even “tried to find a baby’s heartbeat on a simulated model or investigated a scene of a car accident.”

Warnke added that as an iJAG teacher, she feels it is vitally important to take students on field trips like Build My Future if only to help them figure out what they don’t want to do after high school.

“I want them to know it is okay to try something they didn’t like. Finding out what you don’t like is just as valuable as finding out what you do like. I don’t want them going into their future field without experiencing it hands-on.”

And while the district did not have any students take part in a trades signing ceremony this year, Warnke said she has many students committed to future apprenticeships including seniors Brandon Burchfield (plumbing) and Alexander Meggers (electrical).