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Luke Gebhart signs up for the U.S. Air Force as TSGT Charles Giertz (left) and LTC Brian Barham (right) look on.

Daniel Rae doesn't regret following his own path after graduating from high school in 2003.

Back then, everyone was pushed to go to college, he said, but he wasn't that interested in school.

Luckily for Rae, he was told to talk to Tony Lann, the heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration instructor at the Spotsylvania Career & Technical Center. He signed up for Lann's classes, and went on to work for several plumbing and HVAC companies in the area after graduation. He said that he recently discovered that he makes more as an HVAC technician than a friend who's a lawyer.

"There are a lot of people coming out of college without a job," Rae told the roughly 150 students, parents, teachers and school officials attending the inaugural SkillsUSA National Signing Day ceremony Wednesday evening at the Career & Technical Center. "You don't have to have a doctorate to make $100,000 a year, if that's your goal."

SkillsUSA, a nonprofit that works with industry and schools to build career-oriented programs and job pipelines, teamed up with Klein Tools, an Illinois-based toolmaker, to create this event to raise awareness of skilled trade careers and to help close the U.S. skills gap. Similar to "National Signing Day" events for high school student athletes, it gave around 3,000 seniors in 300 schools nationwide the chance to announce their career plans and sign "letters of intent" for a job offer, apprenticeship or advanced technical training as friends and family took photos and shot video.

Emily Hall, SCTC's career development counselor, said that the students who take classes at the center are recognized during their individual high school's senior convocation, but she doesn't think anything has ever been done to highlight the fact that they have jobs lined up with local companies after graduation.

"Obviously, these students need to be celebrated because they're filling a skills gap," said Hall.

According to SkillsUSA, the United States will need 10 million new skilled workers by 2020. Currently 600,000 skilled jobs are going unfilled, and 83 percent of companies report a moderate to serious shortage of skilled workers. The most difficult jobs to fill are technicians, skilled trades workers, production operators and laborers.

Yet while around 85 percent of Americans believe tradespeople are important to the country's economic prosperity and standard of living, only one in three parents would encourage their child to work in a trade.

The problem, according to SkillsUSA, is that young people feel that it is more important to be seen as "professional." They lack the skills and acceptance of trade education, which has resulted in a decline in skilled workers nationwide.

That decline is likely to worsen unless more young people choose to enter the trades. The average age of today's tradespeople is 56, which means they'll reach retirement age in five to 15 years.

Del. Bobby Orrock, an agricultural education teacher at Spotsylvania High School for many years, pointed out in his speech at the ceremony that the students who will go straight into the workforce after graduation not only can make as much or more as someone with a college degree, but they won't be burdened with college debt.

"Ready to sign your lives away?" SCTC Principal Meghan O'Connor said as she kicked off the signings with a cheerful "Whoot! Whoot!"

Cara Gravatt, the assistant principal, then called the 28 students being honored to the front of the room one by one according to their career cluster, beginning with agriculture, architecture and construction. Others included government and public administration, health science, human services, information technology, and education and training.

Among the first to be called was Josh Zamperini who signed his letter of intent as the name of the employer, Express Electric, was projected on a screen behind him. He received a certificate and medal to wear during graduation, along with a Klein Tools signing kit. It included a hat, T-shirt, bag and a pair of Klein Tools pliers.

Ten students will be going into the military. Two will be medics, and three will be cavalry scouts, although they won't be riding horses, said Lt. Col Barham, SCTC's senior Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps instructor.

"They told you that, right?" he jokingly asked as Brandon Sharpless signed his letter of intent.

Other employers included two dental offices; several HVAC, masonry and electrical contractors; two hair salons; a therapy center; a computer repair business; a child care center; and Home Depot, which has committed to outfitting and training 20,000 new tradespeople by 2028.

All the employers were given a small lantern with the inscription, "Thanks for making our students' futures bright."

Three of the seniors who took part in the signing celebration are in the state's relatively new Youth Registered Apprenticeship program, which provides on-the-job training overseen by a mentor and related technical instruction. It serves as a bridge to employment for Career Technical Education students planning to enter the workforce upon graduation.

A total of 10 students statewide graduated from the program after it launched in the 2017–18 school year, and 48 are graduating from it this year, said Miguel Granillo-Cordova, the Virginia Department of Labor & Industry's apprenticeship consultant, who attended the ceremony.

They include Josh, who started working at Express Electric last June, and will be an apprentice electrician this fall. He said that he got interested in the trade because of his grandfather, who was an electrician, and by taking electricity instructor Jeff Autry's class at SCTC.

He said that it felt "pretty nice" to be in the first class to take part in National Signing Day.

Three students in the group studied cosmetology and took the exam for their state license Tuesday. Two of them—Makayla Castro and Cassandra Lee—got a bouquet of spring flowers from Robin Fines after they signed letters of intent to work for her at Creative Clippers after graduation.

Cassandra said she appreciated the ceremony because some students look down on those who aren't planning on going to college. She said she was interested in working in a hair salon when she was 16, but wasn't certain it was the right place for her until she began working at Creative Clippers and studying cosmetology at SCTC.

"In the next five years, I plan to buy the business and take over as manager," she said.

Going into a skilled trade doesn't have to exclude college. 

Hanna Smith said that she wasn't sure if she wanted to go be a dental assistant until she started taking the dental careers class at SCTC and practicing on her classmates. Now, she said, dentistry is her passion. She's taken the radiation health and safety exam for dental assistants, signed to work at Fredericksburg Dental Associates, and plans to go to Germanna Community College to become a dental hygienist.

"I love helping people," she said.

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Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407

cjett@freelancestar.com