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Paige Collins and Chip Horn credit the Porter County Career and Technical Center with helping them find their career paths.

Collins and Horn said the instruction and core training they received at the center, while both were also attending high school, led to them finding the right fit when it came to careers they wanted to pursue.

"I was a senior at Washington Township and it was the best decision I made in high school, because it allowed me to live on my own and be on the path of an amazing career ... The career center was the springboard to that," Collins said.

Some 1,200 students attended the center this past year, including juniors and seniors from all Porter County high schools and Hobart High School, according to director Jon Groth.

Groth said career centers like the one he directs in Valparaiso and those throughout Northwest Indiana offer a great opportunity to those still in their teens to receive advantages of getting on-the job training while receiving credits or certifications.

"We have partnerships with employers who hire the students then send them to two-year colleges. We're successful and the word is getting out there that a four-year college isn't the only way to go," Groth said.

Collins, who was a senior at Washington Township High School, said attending the career center was one of the best decisions she ever made.

"I always wanted to be a nurse and it was confirmation that the health field was where I wanted to wind up," Collins said.

Collins, 23, started out in health occupations at the Valparaiso-based center, doing clinicals at Willows Nursing Home in Valparaiso and working with the Portage Fire Department EMS.

The Michigan City resident will graduate with a degree in nursing at Valparaiso University in the spring.

Horn, 25, unlike Collins, wasn't so sure what field he wanted to go into but started out in an auto technology class then quickly switched to machining technology.

"I started as a diesel technician and was bored. I told the director that I needed to do something else and was told to come look at machining. I had no idea," Horn said.

The Kouts High School student said he left the center with his machining technology training in hand, attended Vincennes University and was hired at Urschel Laboratories where he completed an internship.

"I decided to attend Purdue University where I received my degree in mechanical engineering," Horn said.

Presently he works for Konecranes, the maker of overhead cranes.

Horn said his experience at the center was significantly different that a traditional high school.

"It's so hands-on you get a feel of what you want to go into. The atmosphere is positive and the teachers are helpful. They made it exciting to learn," Horn said.

There are some 35 options for high school students at the Valparaiso center, including automotive, health occupations, business and building trades, Groth said.

"We also have a new program, a fire and rescue program, and our students will get the opportunity to train at the firefighter training center located outside of Valparaiso. Once they receive their training, our students will walk out of high school and be able to get a job at a real fire department," Groth said.

Touting careers in the trades for those still in high school is one of the jobs of Kevin Comerford, director of professional development at Construction Advancement Foundation.

"I go to different schools throughout Northwest Indiana to let them know what working a career in the trades entails," Comerford said.

Late last year, Comerford helped set up the inaugural Northwest Indiana Construction and Skilled Day Program at the Lake County Fairgrounds in Crown Point.

The event, which Comerford termed a success, attracted hundreds of high school students from throughout the area.

"To compete in the global economy you have to have gone to a school, either technical, college or trade. You are going to need some kind of skill once you get out of high school," Comerford said.

Jobs in construction trades offer lucrative salaries for those interested, with $38 per hour the average wage, and $62 per hour in compensation when factoring in pension, health insurance and other benefits.

"In this country, the trades are frowned upon and are considered second class. In some European countries, trades and working with your hands are held in high esteem, like doctors. We are trying to get back to that. How many can drive over a bridge and say I had a hand in making that? There's a lot of pride in craftsmanship trade, working with your hands and tools and creating something," Comerford said.

Rich Gamblin, apprentice coordinator for Ironworkers Local 395, Hammond, said one of his jobs is to connect with interested high school students.

Gamblin came to the Lake County Fairgrounds program.

"It is through career fairs that we are able to connect. It's much better because we can show the students what we do. Hands on is much better for all the trades," Gamblin said.

Gamblin said about 30 young people take part in the Ironworkers Local 395 apprenticeship program after going through an application process that includes an aptitude test and oral interview.

Once selected, sometime in May, the students begin classes in June working as apprentices for the next 11 months.

"We bring in apprentices and train them. The contractors call me and I put them (apprentices) on the site. Our apprenticeship is for a total of four years," Gamblin said.

Lowell High School is at the forefront when it comes to working with students and helping them determine a career path early on whether it be a four-year college or a wide variety of other choices including automotive, welding or criminal justice related jobs, Assistant High School Principal David Wilson said.

"We are in front of the curve. Our community has always been that way," Wilson said.

Wilson said that in the 1990s there was more of an academic push to go to a four-year college. Now there's a certification push.

Just this February, Lowell High School held a career trades event to expose eighth-, ninth- and 10th-graders to what the trades are and what classes and skills they should be taking.

Juniors and seniors were allowed to be in a separate section for employment and application processes and opportunities.

"Our school is completing the construction of a new building that will house a metals/CNC lab and a welding lab. We are also tripling our auto shop space. Lowell is a strong believer in skilled trades and have several dual credit/certification opportunities for students," Wilson said.

High school students transitioning into the professional world can get assistance at a JAG program. Jobs For America's Graduates classes are offered under the auspices of WorkOne of Northwest Indiana. The program is now available at eight area high schools including those in Knox, Michigan City, Gary, East Chicago and Hammond.

"It's a regular class. We can take up to 45 juniors and seniors with some schools large enough to have two programs," Wilson said.

Students who take the class learn what they need to know to prepare for full-time employment and post-secondary education.

"We focus on the future, including development of employable skills, developing a resume and practicing interview skills. We work with the students whether they want to go straight to work after high school, go to a university, military or trade schools," Wilson said.

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