“They’ll ask me if I know how to do something,” she said. “It’s nice to surprise them.”
Thomson is not only a female in a male-dominated field, but also a student working with professionals who have decades of experience. Employed at Greene’s Road & Towing Services, the Burgettstown High School senior studies auto mechanics at Western Area Career & Technology Center (WACTC). She is one of 37 students in the center’s cooperative education program that allows students to work in their field while still in high school.
“This is so beneficial, not only for the students, but employers as well,” said Lea Ann Fairall, WACTC cooperative education coordinator.
The program combines classroom training with supervised, part-time employment related to students’ training and career goals.
Students who participate are found to have a greater degree of confidence entering professional employment, and begin at a higher level of responsibility and higher starting salary.
As for employers, the program acts as a source of recruitment in high-demand fields and provides trained and motivated workers.
“Students are coming out with ability,” said Henry Klinar, manager at McKean Heating and Plumbing.
The HVAC contractor, located in Washington, has employed several WACTC students in the co-op program, and hired current employee George Demnyan after he graduated from high school.
The students, Klinar said, show maturity, and WACTC staff members are excellent partners.
“The students are interested in the work and Lea Ann is great to work with. The instructors do a great job,” Klinar said. “This program does a great job in setting up students for a career.”
Students selected to participate in the co-op program must display a competency in their field, have good attendance and grades and must be mature enough to handle a job on top of school. They are required to attend WACTC every Friday, alternating classes with Fairall and their instructor.
“They have to juggle school work necessary for graduation and be able to handle working in a professional atmosphere. And they are seniors in high school, so they want to have fun and a social life,” Fairall said. “They have maturity.”
When Fairall started the program several years ago, she was cold-calling employers to try to find opportunities for her students. Now, through word-of-mouth and successful pairings, she has about 30 employers with whom she regularly works.
Fairall’s students---some of whom refer to her as “Aunt Lea Ann”---are just as complimentary of their instructor.
“There’s nothing you can’t come to (Fairall) with,” said Rhiannon Jackson, a Peters Township student in the culinary arts program. “This prepares you for what life is going to throw at you.”
“Here, you talk about stuff you’re going to apply in your job and life lessons,” said Thomspon.
Roman Quinn, a Canon-McMillan student employed by Bobby Rahal BMW, said Fairall teaches practical knowledge, like how to call out of work professionally.
“We learn things like how to deal with customers,” he said. “It makes me feel really good to have a successful future.”
WACTC programs of study include auto mechanics, automation robotics engineering, culinary arts, carpentry, cosmetology, collision repair technology, electrical occupations, emergency and protective services, health assistant, heating and air conditioning, masonry, machine shop, networking and welding. Students come from school districts in Avella, Burgettstown, Canon-McMillan, Chartiers-Houston, Fort Cherry, McGuffey, Peters Township, Trinity and Washington.
Career training programs are different than they used to be, said Fairall.
“There is still the stigma that these are kids who can’t get into college. That’s not true. These kids are smart, mature and professional,” she said. “They’ll tell you I run a tight ship. I need them to be good stewards so their employers know they can trust me. These student are performing at top-notch levels.”