It may be time for Generation Z to roll up their sleeves and get working with their hands. According to The Motley Fool, 10,000 baby boomers are retiring every day, and a good portion of them are leaving behind important work in the skilled trades. To make sure these skills aren’t a lost art, Benicia High School reopened the roll-up doors to its shop classes after three years without an instructor. Through two new career pathways, students can now learn auto mechanics, metal works, welding, building and construction skills.
Their new teacher is Steve Shields, who taught in Sacramento for the past 18 years. Steve’s been tinkering since he was 5 years old in his dad’s garage, and he put himself through college helping build things like bridges and homes, and rebuilding Volkswagen engines.
His shops at BHS are lined with tools, both old and high tech. In the center of the auto shop’s concrete floors is a vintage VW truck on jacks that’s been stripped and primed. The students are refurbishing the engine and body, and will eventually sell it, with proceeds to support the program. Next to the van is a student’s prized army green Ford truck that a crew has helped to polish and rotate the tires. In the construction warehouse across the way, students are building a teardrop trailer with a metal frame and wood body. Nearby there’s a large poster of Rosie the Riveter hanging on the classroom wall.
“I’m a huge fan of Rosie the Riveter because of what she represented during WWII. Women in the war built machinery, ships, aircraft carriers, destroyers. Not in months, but in weeks,” says Steve. While there are still more boys in his classes, he says girls tend to be very good at welding. “Any child that has the determination or drive to do this work can do it … whether they are a boy or girl. That doesn’t matter.”
“First and foremost, my hope is that my students learn practical skills, and are able to use tools safely, and to fix things without having to hire out or throw things away,” says Steve, who has a degree in construction technology from Shasta College, a BA in psychology from Simpson Bible College, and an MA in Psychology from National University.
With 28 students in each of his five classes, Steve runs the shops like a real-world business, and is hoping to do more jobs in the community. The automotive students are now servicing all the school vans with oil changes and safety checks. “The programs here are giving students a large toolbox of knowledge to work from,” says Steve. “There is a huge demand now for welding and construction, and unions are chomping at the bit. Students are getting hired right out of high school with salaries in the $60,000 range. That’s more than a first year teacher,” he smiles.
But, Steve’s not complaining. Teaching has afforded him the opportunity to travel in summers to 16 different countries, including all over Europe, the Philippines and Jamaica. Soon on his list is Thailand, and he says he’d love to see more of the United States. This summer he’ll visit Mount Vernon. And, wherever he goes, he’ll be bringing Rosie the Riveter on his arm, because that’s where she’s been artfully tattooed.