Gary Wilson is having a summer like no other — awake before 5 a.m., on the job before dawn. One day, he is ankle-deep in muddy water, helping to replace a broken concrete storm pipe. Another, he is wielding a jackhammer as though he has done it for years.
It’s all a big change from classes at Suitland High School in Maryland, these weeks of work as an apprentice to a master plumber.
“We’ve been out there doing a lot, and I’m picking it up,” Wilson, a rising senior, said more than a month into the experience.
In a program described as a first in the state, Wilson and other teenagers in Prince George’s County are paired with employees from their school system for an apprenticeship designed to last several years. Their work continues through August and scales back to part time during 12th grade. After graduation, the school system plans to hire the students or place them with industry partners as they continue to train.
“Our goal is to get our students fully licensed as journeymen to work in their chosen trades,” said Lateefah Durant, career and technical education coordinator for the school system, who hopes some of the students have long careers with Prince George’s.
“It’s an opportunity to grow our own but also give our students a set of skills and a licensure that they can take anywhere,” she said.
The idea took shape at a time when the school system’s building services staff had openings — and high school students were eyeing the job market. One of the goals in career and technical education is to connect students to employment opportunities after graduation, Durant said.
“We had this mutual need, and that’s how it started,” she said.
With the program’s launch in June, the students began working full time for $15 an hour on crews that maintain and repair the system’s more than 200 schools and offices. Some do carpentry or plumbing, while others are involved in masonry, electrical work or air-conditioning systems across Maryland’s second-largest school system.
In all, 20 students from three high schools are part of the launch. All are rising 12th-graders, and four are girls. School officials intend to expand in the future and include more career fields.
Many students, including Wilson, 17, have already drawn praise from the experienced tradesmen who are teaching and mentoring them.
Walter Booker, a master plumber with more than four decades of experience, said Wilson has not missed a day and shows up early.
“This young man, I’m very, very impressed,” he said. “He’s been on point. He’s never been late. He’s very astute. He asks a lot of questions.”
Booker, 61, said he has been teaching Wilson the basics of plumbing — how to inspect a pipe, find clogs, use tools — as the two ride around in a white-panel utility truck and respond to work orders.
“There’s so much to learn, and every day he proves he wants to learn it,” said Booker, who gives the teenager informal weekly quizzes.
Their talks go beyond plumbing, Booker said. He has been a mentor to other young people over the years and says he makes a point of sharing life lessons — how to manage money and the importance of writing down goals, for example.
“These are the kinds of things we talk about daily,” Booker said.
The recent heat wave didn’t slow them down. Summer is a busy season, important in the yearly cycle of maintenance before the new school year begins in September.
One recent day, as Wilson and Booker worked in Suitland, other students were making repairs in Capitol Heights, near a cluster of portable classroom trailers at the H. Winship Wheatley Early Childhood Center.
Alex Barrientos, 16, and Dorian Williams, 17, measured plywood sheets to replace weather-battered exterior siding on a portable. Using a power saw, they cut panels to just the right size and screwed them into place.
The teenagers, apprentices in carpentry, are students at Bladensburg High School. They found on-the-job experience to be a big step forward in the trade.
“From where we started, we know a lot more,” said Barrientos, who wants to be an architectural engineer and sees carpentry as foundational in his learning.
The experience, Williams agreed, went far beyond the classroom.
“Using my hands to do it, it means a lot more,” he said. “It sticks.”
Inside the portable they were refacing, Jesus Herrera, 17, was perched atop a ladder, replacing a lighted exit sign not far from his supervisor, electrician Ruy Monzon.
Herrera said he was still deciding whether his future was in electrical work, automobile repair or both.
Others were settled on their aspirations.
“I’m here for a reason — I want to work for Prince George’s County,” said Raymond Evans, 17, who helped service an air-conditioning unit at the early-childhood center.
Under the new program, the students are considered “registered apprentices” who will put in 6,000 to 8,000 hours of work over a period of years as they complete high school and do course work at Prince George’s Community College.
About 8,000 students are involved in career and technical education in Prince George’s. The program has expanded its offerings to new career fields in recent years.
John Plater and Clifton Kennerly, lead carpenters who were supervising the Bladensburg High students, said the teenagers have impressed them.
“They’re good kids,” Kennerly said. “A lot of the youth today aren’t interested in learning a trade, so to get some kids who really want to learn is really refreshing.”
Plater said he wished the program had started 20 years ago. “Their attitude is so positive,” he said. “This is overdue.”