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HHS debuts ambitious new program to make students more job-ready upon graduation

  • Karissa Irlbeck inside her classroom at Harrisburg High school. The blown-up photos behind her are all pictures of Irlbeck on various jobs.

    Karissa Irlbeck inside her classroom at Harrisburg High school. The blown-up photos behind her are all pictures of Irlbeck on various jobs.
    Gatha Moore photo

  • One of her photos shows Karissa Irlbeck working on bridge construction near Galatia.

    One of her photos shows Karissa Irlbeck working on bridge construction near Galatia.
    Gatha Moore photo

  • Karissa Irlbeck welding on a job that featured an all-women piling crew.

    Karissa Irlbeck welding on a job that featured an all-women piling crew.
    Gatha Moore photo

By Renee Trappe
updated: 8/22/2021 2:59 PM

Karissa Irlbeck has the kind of credentials to teach vocation education that a school district usually can just dream about. But Harrisburg High School's got her -- and with her help the school intends to build a vocational education program that will help graduates find good employment immediately.

Irlbeck, 32, graduated from HHS in 2007, eager to get started on a career in construction.

"I knew what I wanted to do, and I got started early," says Irlbeck, who has been a union carpenter for 14 years. Lest you think a union carpenter is limited to pounding nails into wood, consider some of the jobs Irlbeck has held in those years: bridge construction; drywall installation; scaffolding; concrete; DensGlass installation and -- as an AWS certified welder -- welding.

She's never had trouble finding employment and she makes a healthy union wage with good benefits -- all while living in or near Harrisburg.

This is what she, and Harrisburg High School officials, want for the current generation of students and those coming up -- good jobs that kids won't have to leave Saline County to find.

This fall, on top of the growing agriculture classes the school already has, HHS is offering Introduction to Carpentry, a building and construction trades class, a small engines class and a dual electricity and plumbing class (first semester is electricity; second semester is plumbing).

The building and construction trades course will involve making trusses, steps, rafters and scaffolds; welding; metal studs and drywall, among other skills. Irlbeck is using a curriculum developed by the carpenter's union.

Administrator Eric Witges, who will become Unit District 3 superintendent when Mike Gauch retires next year, said there is a demand for these types of career services in Harrisburg.

"We know not every child has the desire to go to school for four more years; we want them to be able to learn and make a living with their passion," Witges said. "Everybody has their own talents, and exposing kids to as many opportunities as we can is our duty."

Both Witges and Irlbeck say this year's curriculum is just the beginning. They intend to build the program up, and students will get important certifications by the time they graduate.

"We may well add (classes) in the future, this is just a foundation for us to get started in trades," Witges said.

Going into the trades means working your way through a five-year apprenticeship if a high school graduate is starting from scratch. A graduate who has had a full-bodied trades program in high school can knock years off their apprenticeship.

If that student also wants to get a construction management degree at community college, they can work in the trades and make decent money while they are going to school.

Currently, the prevailing wage is $38.50 an hour for tradesmen and women who have finished their apprenticeships. Apprentices will make 55% of scale, or around $19 an hour. They will attend class one week every month in either Belleville or Cape Girardeau and get wage increases every six months during their apprenticeships.

"They aren't working for chump change," Irlbeck said.

Irlbeck said all unions require their apprentices to be certified in CPR and first aid, and may of them require a 10-hour class put on by OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. She wants her HHS kids to get that done in high school. She also envisions HHS becoming an AWS certification site for welders, both teens and adults from the community, that would be recognized nationally.

"I knew I wanted to be a carpenter my whole life," Irlbeck says, adding she will remain a member of the Carpenters union and expects she'll take jobs in the summer.

She acknowledges she took a "big" pay cut to leave the trades for teaching, but nobody twisted her arm. Her dad, the head of custodial services at HHS, was shocked that she wanted to turn to teaching, but she's got an 11-year-old and 5-year-old at home, and says "I'm a mom first."

Moreover, "I'm 32, and I've been pouring concrete -- everything's heavy on bridge jobs -- and I have reached the point where I should slow down a little bit or my body is going to be too tired before I retire," she says.

"I never had any idea of being a teacher," she says, laughing. "I decided to see what it would be like to work in my hometown. This means I can be home with (her sons) and get to their sporting events," she adds.

As well, the thought of building up this program at her alma mater is enticing.

Growing up in Harrisburg, she said, trades were never a big thing. Generations of families followed each other into the coal mines. Now, she said, maybe they'll follow each other into trades.

"I want this to be a thing," she says. She dreams that within two or three years, other southern Illinois high schools will see what Harrisburg is accomplishing, and will want to emulate it. She believes it will be a shot in the arm for the region.

Irlbeck said women can work in the trades and be accepted.

"In my experience I've never had (negative) issues with men," she said. "But I went to work every day and I did my job. If you focus on your job and don't let anything else bother you or interfere, you'll be fine."

She worked while she was pregnant. Eight weeks after she had her youngest son, she was back at work, putting the metal roof on the new part of Harrisburg High School.

Now, instead of being on top of the high school, she'll be in it.

"I want to see the kids succeed," Irlbeck says. "The idea that I can show these kids and give them the opportunities I had, is the bigger picture for me."