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From Trades to Riches: Profiting from Past Mistakes

Trade Life

This article is written by Jim Clements. It was posted on realcleareducation.com on November 28, 2017.

Spray painting walls and hotwiring cars are not experiences most business leaders look for in job candidates. But a new focus at Boys Town is not only teaching at-risk kids how to overcome past mistakes but also to learn – and profit – from them.

Of course, helping at-risk youth conquer daunting obstacles is nothing new. This December, Boys Town celebrates 100 years of providing love and support to neglected children.

Many students come to our community because they have lived in a world without parental affection, without structure or boundaries. Many act out because they are bored and simply seeking attention; others have faced unthinkable abuse and neglect.

And while our overall mission of helping kids build happy, healthy and successful futures has stayed the same over these 100 years, the means by which we do that have changed with society.

Nowadays, a lot of kids are told their whole lives that they need to go to college and are made to feel inadequate when they don't have a shot. At Boys Town, many of the students grew up in environments where they never even had a voice telling them about college.

That's why classes teaching trades – like automotive, welding and electrician skills – are the perfect tools to capture the attention of otherwise distracted students while conveying some of life's most important responsibilities. Kids who used to spray paint in the streets can use their talents in a productive environment. As a more extreme example, I've seen kids who used to hotwire cars learn to fix an engine. We take their real-life experience and apply it toward a positive end.

New research has found that a college degree no longer guarantees a higher income. Trade school is seen as an increasingly viable option to fix the country's income gap, as well as an answer to the competitive challenges found in a world driven by artificial intelligence. 

When Father Flanagan started the school in 1917, places like Silicon Valley were still farm country. Today, they're growing and harvesting ideas. But the reality is that technology companies across the country – and the globe – do not have enough workers with hands-on experience turning ideas and drafts into reality.

What's more, companies need employees who not only have the technical capabilities but also have the "soft" skills of success: punctuality, work ethic, team-orientation and a positive attitude. Knowing a skill will help you land a job. But respect for others will help you keep it.

Trade classes help students uncover a talent they already have while demonstrating that they can have fun in school. Students have to work together to solve real-life, hands-on problems, not theoretical ones. Many of our students don't even realize that what they're doing – and enjoying – is a learning experience.

The lessons they learn spill over the class time – with kids behaving better outside of class so that they can participate in the class.

What's more, trades can actually help students in other classes where they may be struggling. I have a student who decided that math isn't for him, and yet can figure out all the angles in his head while building. That's called applied math.

Finally, students learn that there's an option to go to higher vocational education schools and that they can have a successful future, with or without a college degree. This option opens the eyes of many students and gives them opportunities they never even dreamed were possible.

Jim Clements is the Trade Instructor of Mechanics, Carpentry and Welding at Boys Town High School, Nebraska.