U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) joined a gathering of community leaders and educators at Evanston Township High School Friday morning, Oct. 29, to advocate for expanded career readiness options in high school to help prepare interested students to work in technical trades or manufacturing.
Sen. Duckworth told the group that she cares deeply about this subject because her brother dropped out of multiple colleges before finding success as a machinist. Right now, the average technical trades worker in the United States is over 50 years old, she said, suggesting a need to educate young people about career opportunities that don’t necessarily involve going to a four-year college for a bachelor’s degree.
“I’m telling you, our country is suffering for it, our national security is suffering for it,” Sen. Duckworth said. “Our economy, our GDP growth depends on us getting more people into the workforce, into these jobs.”
Local resident David Abramson, who graduated from ETHS in 2016 before eventually dropping out of Oakton Community College and pursuing a career with Evanston-based Ward Manufacturing, spoke at the meeting about his journey and described how college was never the right path for him. Especially in a suburb like Evanston, schools don’t do enough to educate students about their workforce development options beyond applying to college, Abramson said.
“I think that the exposure to the world of manufacturing, trades and overall skilled labor is something that’s lacking and necessary for kids who are not sold on college, cannot afford college or are just unsure,” Abramson said at Friday’s gathering with Sen. Duckworth. “We inherently treat the world of trades and skilled labor with this negative stigma that’s been pushed over years of convincing everyone that college is the only route to true success.”
The meeting’s panel also featured Doug Silverstein, President of Northshore University HealthSystem’s Evanston Hospital, who said the hospital has an abundance of available jobs in hundreds of different areas that high school graduates can apply for right now. The hospital hopes to offer a pipeline for high school students to enter the health care industry in their own home community by working in information technology, communications, hospitality and more, Silverstein said.
Several other nonprofit leaders, educators and business owners also participated in the discussion, emphasizing the current shortage of workers in trades like manufacturing and the need for a deeper conversation surrounding career education and preparation for young people in Evanston.
Tom Ward, who runs Ward Manufacturing at 2230 Main St. and hired Abramson after he finished high school, said ETHS should focus on working with parents to change the narrative around entering a skilled labor industry instead of going to college. If families understand trades as viable and successful career paths, then real progress can be made to boost the workforce and improve career readiness education, he said.
One of the key players when it comes to shaping the ETHS career pathways curriculum is Shelley Gates, the Career and Technical Education Department Chair at the high school. In an interview with the RoundTable, she said Sen. Duckworth’s visit provided validation for her years of work in the field and motivation to keep going.
“We have so many young people in our country who are floundering. This is a huge national crisis, and the flip side is the fact that we have this huge shortage of workers in industries that are begging for people,” Gates said. “So there’s such a disconnect, and I would say from a school point of view, the fact that we have young people that graduate from this high school who are floundering in their 20s is really something that we need to address.”
Sen. Duckworth also stressed that young students need to understand that a decision between college and a trades career as an 18-year-old does not have to determine the course of their future. Many skilled workers go back to school to get an associate’s degree or a certificate to qualify themselves for a higher-paying position, for example, so choosing a career instead of college after high school need not end education forever.
The U.S. senator organized the visit to ETHS through her longtime friend Patrick Hughes, an Evanston resident and the founder and former CEO of Inclusion Solutions. Hughes first developed a relationship with Sen. Duckworth, an Iraq War veteran who lost both legs in a helicopter crash, when he heard her talking on NPR about the inaccessibility of gas stations. He had previously invented a system to make gas stations accessible for people with disabilities, so he went to the state fair that year to meet Sen. Duckworth and show her his solution to her problem.
“We just care about each other. We’re just friends,” Hughes said. “… Of all the United States senators, this is the one that I would want to have come to this high school to help have this conversation with our community. I think we struggle with this conversation [about career options], and what she said today was what we need to hear.”
Ultimately, Sen. Duckworth left the audience with a message that the meeting should only be the beginning of many conversations about how to prepare the nation’s youth for their careers and teach them about the many options available for the future.
“I gotta say, traditional pathways are great, but our nation needs this. And we’re making significant investments,” Sen. Duckworth said. “It’s gonna take a commitment from all of us over a period of years, not just this one meeting we’re having today. We’re gonna have to do this over and over again, and we’re going to have to sell the parents on it.”