Students finding careers through CT’s technical high schools

When Mike Hughes graduated from high school, he knew he enjoyed teaching, so he started college on a path to a career in early childhood education. But soon he found he wasn’t happy with the course he was on.

“I couldn’t see pursuing more in the college realm,” he said. “I sat down and said ‘What do you want to do with yourself?’”

At the time, Hughes had a hobby hand-making forged knives. He realized he really loved metallurgy and working with his hands. So, in 2016, he left college and ended up enrolling as a postgraduate in the welding and fabrication program at Bristol Technical Education Center. Today, at 24, he works in the aerospace industry, correcting flaws in molds used to make parts for companies like Rolls-Royce and Pratt & Whitney.

“You’re very self-accountable for what you do in welding, which really is geared toward my personality,” he said.

Across Connecticut, there are 14 degree-granting technical high schools with some type of manufacturing program. The schools serve young people who are still in high school, as well as returning students like Hughes, helping them learn, get on-the-job experience, and build connections that can lead to jobs with local employers.

“Our students graduate with the ability to just walk onto a manufacturing floor,” said Kerry Markey, director of communications for the Connecticut Technical High School System.

Amy Howroyd, who teaches in the program where Hughes studied, said technical education is gaining increasing respect as a route to good careers for capable students.

“When I was in school, it would be threatened to you as a punishment, that if you messed up you were going to have to go to technical school to graduate,” she said.

Mike Hughes, 24

School: Bristol Technical Education Center
Residence: Norwich
Job aspirations: Continue advancing in the aerospace industry
He must have strong fingers: Hughes loves rock climbing

Amy Howroyd, 30

Position: Welding & metal fabrication teacher
School: Bristol Technical Education Center
Residence: New Hartford
One of these things is not like the other: Howroyd enjoys camping, hiking and making metal sculptures

Today, Howroyd said, her students see they can snap up jobs doing anything from fabricating metal machinery parts to working on submarines or doing pipe welding. Since students do on-the-job training, many can go right to the same employer they’re already working for after graduation. Many companies are eager to hire because they face a shortage of skilled tradespeople.

“Any time I talk with my local businesses that we work with, many have people retiring,” Howroyd said. “They don’t know what to do.”

Adelmo Lia works the manufacturing machine at Emmett O’Brien Technical High School.

Jumping right into manufacturing

At 16, Adelmo Lia is already working two different manufacturing jobs this summer, one at Sikorsky, the aircraft company owned by Lockheed Martin, and another at Inline Plastics. Lia said he’ll continue to work at the plastics company over the next school year while completing his senior year in the precision machining program at Emmett O’Brien Technical High School in Ansonia. After that, he plans to work full-time for Sikorsky and take advantage of the company’s college tuition reimbursement program to continue his education. In part, he’s driven by the good financial rewards of the manufacturing industry, but he said he also enjoys the work.

“I really love what I’m doing now,” Lia said. “I love waking up in the morning and going to work every day and being able to make something new.”

Steve Orloski, head of the program where Lia’s studying, said machining has become a huge draw for students.

“The students are all getting high-paying jobs with no college debt,” he said. “They’re really, really excelling: males, females, we’re getting everybody into the field.”

Orloski himself is the fourth generation in his family to go into the tool-and-die industry. He graduated from Bullard-Havens Technical High School in Bridgeport and worked for aerospace and molding companies for 17 years before switching gears and entering education 15 years ago.

“I wanted to give back to the school system that gave so much to me,” he said. “I haven’t looked back. It’s been the most rewarding job of my life.”

Adelmo Lia, 16

School: Emmett O’ Brien Technical High School, Ansonia
Residence: Derby
Job aspirations: To work in a machine shop/factory
Just kicking it: Lia is a varsity soccer player.

Steve Orloski, 49

Position: Department head of precision machine technology
School: Emmett O’Brien Technical High School, Ansonia
Residence: Beacon Falls
Greenskeeper: Orloski is an avid golfer and former golf coach

Students at Emmett O’Brien Technical High School in Ansonia get hands-on learning experiences.

“The money’s great too.”

Aside from preparing students to go right into the workforce, technical schools can also give them a foundation for a college career. Lucy Driscoll graduated this June as salutatorian of Ella T. Grasso Technical High School, where she studied design and engineering technology. Upon graduation, she got a job offer in her field, but she decided to focus instead on continuing her education at the University of Connecticut Avery Point.

Driscoll said she initially started in a different program at the technical school but discovered she enjoyed designing machine components and working with electrical diagrams.

“You know everything that’s going into the process of creating a part – a mechanical bearing or anything like that,” she said. “The money’s great too.”

While she’s focusing on continuing her education, Driscoll said she’s grateful that she got experience working in her field during high school.

“The work experience probably was the best part of Grasso,” she said. “I’m not as nervous when it comes to entering the real workforce now.”

Thomas Allen, head of the mechanical design and engineering technology department at Grasso, said Driscoll’s experience is not unusual. He said 90% to 95% of students are offered entry-level positions when they graduate, and around half of them turn the offers down to go on to college.

Allen has been working at the school since 1995, when he left a job in the industry to help the school update its programs to be in step with employers’ needs. Today, he said, the school regularly updates its software, in consultation with local companies, ensuring that students have the specific skills that are in demand.

Lucy Caroline Driscoll, 18

School: Ella T. Grasso Technical High School, Groton
Residence: New London
Job aspirations: To be an engineer or design supervisor
Role playing: Driscoll has been playing Dungeons & Dragons for 10 years

Thomas Allen, 53

Position: Mechanical Design & Engineering Technology Department head
School: Ella T. Grasso Technical High School, Groton
Residence: Gales Ferry
Cruising with the top down: Allen drives a 1958 convertible Beetle that’s still in good shape because it had been in storage for 40 years

“When I came in, the kids that were coming out were a couple of years behind in technology,” he said. “At this point, if anything, we might be six months ahead.”

With the time he’s been at the school, Allen now has a whole network of alumni spread out across Connecticut’s manufacturing industries who can help new graduates.

“It’s kind of created an environment where past graduates are looking out for present graduates,” he said. “It’s very rewarding. I think what’s more rewarding is we’re really making a difference in training young adults.”