Kalamazoo college aid plan extended to trades

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News
Instructor Mark Silvestri, right, assists carpenter’s apprentice Jacob Atkins, 21. The Kalamazoo Promise is partnering with the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights to provide scholarship funds for the apprenticeship program.

Jacob Atkins always knew he should go to college, especially since he attended Kalamazoo Public Schools, home of the first program in the nation that guaranteed free college to graduates.

But when the time came to apply, Atkins began soul-searching and realized he did not want the life of a college student. When someone asked him if he had ever considered a skilled trade as a career, he admitted he hadn't.

"All we were taught about in school was how to apply to college," said Atkins, 21. "No one ever spoke to me about trade school and how it works or what it was."

But that has changed. 

The Kalamazoo Promise — the pioneering program that expanded access to higher education by paying for college tuition for the city’s high school graduates — is now partnering with the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights to provide scholarship funding for Kalamazoo students accepted into the apprenticeship program.

While not the first promise program to offer funding for students pursuing a skilled trade, experts say it is among only a few in the nation.

It comes as officials say the demand for skilled trades has never been greater in Michigan. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who set a statewide goal of 60% of residents having a postsecondary credential by 2030, has been attending events to help attract young people to alternative avenues for well-paying jobs.

"This partnership creates so many opportunities, and it shows how many different paths there are to a great degree," said Jen McKernan, spokeswoman for the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights. 

The newly opened, state-of-the-art Wayland Carpenter and Millwright Training Center, south of Grand Rapids, began offering classes in January in commercial and residential carpentry, floor-laying and millwright trades.

The training center will be where the partnership with the Kalamazoo Promise will unfold, an opportunity to help young people in Kalamazoo understand what a career in skilled trades involves, said Tod Sandy, facility coordinator.

Once a student enters the training program, known as an apprentice, they immediately begin earning a salary, paid by the contractor that hires them. Their pay is typically 50-65% of the pay journeymen receive under contracts with the different unions, Sandy said. Students learn their trade while working and earning an income.

 "It offers them an opportunity they might not have known about," said Sandy. "It's great wages, great benefits and a career that will hold them through their entire lives, and they will live a comfortable life. It’s their ticket to the middle class."

Charles Kelly, 27, of Kalamazoo works on a welding project at the Wayland Carpenter and Millwright Training Center in Wayland, Michigan.

The Kalamazoo Promise is a seminal program that pays for college for every graduating senior, thanks to a group of benefactors. It was groundbreaking when it was launched 14 years ago, and has since inspired more than 200 similar promise programs across the country, funded either with private dollars, public dollars or a combination. All aim to help pay for students to go to college.

Von Washington Jr., spokesman for the Kalamazoo Promise, said that the program has paid $124 million in tuition and mandatory fees since 2005 for students seeking a college degree from a four- or two-year higher education institution.

A few years ago, a student asked for and secured a scholarship from the Kalamazoo Promise to pay for an electrician training program.

It seemed natural to expand the program to other students seeking support for skilled trade training, Washington said.

"Since the start of the Kalamazoo Promise, we have known that not all students want to go for a bachelor’s degree," he said. "Students need a wide variety of options when considering a career path."

Skilled trades involve training that is often shorter and cheaper than college programs. Many have touted the trades as a way for young people to learn marketable skills without the debt many college students amass.

Trades have often been thought of as manual labor careers, but fields include health care and information technology, where worker demand is high.

Martha Kanter — a former U.S. undersecretary of education said it's great that promise programs are starting to offer scholarship to students in skilled trades. Kanter is executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based College Promise Campaign, which advocates public funding of the first two years of college. 

Charles Kelly, left, checks his work at the training center with instructor Carles Hicks. Students who enter the training program immediately begin earning a salary, paid by the contractor that hires them.

She cautioned that students should keep in mind that many trades involve manual labor that can lead some to abandon their career before retirement. Kanter advises students considering such trades to leave the door open to an education that would help them open a business or go into management.

"The programs should be laddered to a future these students can depend on," Kanter said. "I want them to be ready for that."

Atkins, who is training as a carpenter's apprentice, said he has left the door open, since he has 10 years after his high school graduation to use the Kalamazoo Promise for a higher education program.

He is halfway through his apprentice program, learning in the training center but also getting paid out in the field. Last year, he earned about $25,000 and expects to start earning $50,000 to $60,000 when he becomes a journeyman.

"College is an amazing experience and can be very useful," said Atkins. "But some kids are like me: They want to build. They want to do something physical. They don’t want to be in an office or cubicle or in a suit or tie ... Then there's the trades. In my eyes, that is my career."