It Worked for Me
High school students and recent graduates share how they succeeded in trades without a college degree
By Abby Osborne
Johna Finch has generally been pretty sure of her career plans: “I’ve always wanted to be in the health care field in some form.”
Through participating in Hodgson Vocational Technical High School’s Health Information Technology (HIT) program, the newly graduated senior discovered exactly what she wanted to do.
“I realized that nursing might have been too hectic for me, and working as a front desk receptionist is more my style,” says Finch.
HIT is a class that focuses on “medical billing and coding,” with some insurance work mixed in. Finch has been a part of the class for four years. She says she’s learned “how to bill and code medical procedures” as well as “how insurance works for different types of people and procedures.” (Average salaries for medical billers and coders run in the mid-$50,000s, according to AAPC, which certifies coders and billers nationwide.)
Finch prefers learning in a tactile, hands-on way, so this class prepared her for what she’d be “doing in her day-to-day job.” She didn’t earn money from the program, but rather, it gave her experience should she decide to pursue the job in the future.
For any middle-school students who are considering a career in the health care field, she has a simple piece of advice: Consider what you want to do after high school.
She stresses that you have to ask yourself whether you really want to attend college, as “a lot of places in the HIT field don’t necessarily require a college education.”
But most of all, Finch emphasizes that what really matters is whether you truly enjoy the work you’re doing.
“Just make sure you’re comfortable with this field, and you actually like it.”
Omar Brooks-Alexander had loved working in his school’s workshop since freshman year and wanted to somehow integrate that into his future career.
“In my senior year, I went into school thinking, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do,’” he says.
He did know he didn’t want to further strain his body playing sports, so Brooks-Alexander opted to pursue a career in manufacturing. With the help of some faculty members at Hodgson Vocational Technical High School, the newly graduated senior was able to achieve that through a co-op program with HYTORC, an industrial equipment supplier.
Here, Brooks-Alexander would hone his attention to detail and work on various tasks like maintenance of tools, cleaning up, and learning how to use tools.
“These tools are made for larger industrial things. Homeowners can use them if they have a large enough project for it, but it’s not recommended,” says Brooks-Alexander. He further explains that the tools he works with are “used on bridges, power plants, [and] anything above 1,000 pounds of pressure.”
Through his co-op program, where he worked two weeks and then took two weeks off, Brooks-Alexander earned between $3,500 and $6,000 a year. In addition to a growing wallet, he enjoyed the work environment, as it “didn’t feel like [he] was in a classroom” but rather in a genuine workplace where he could “get the satisfaction of helping other companies [get] the job done.”
To those uncertain whether the trades are really right for them, Brooks-Alexander offers the suggestion that you’ll never know if you don’t go for it: “I would say just try it out, even if you don’t know what it is. You might like it.”
Carson Watts loves working outside and with his hands, so he knew that his decision to go to school for the trades — specifically, carpentry — was perfect for him.
“I just like to be able to see and feel what I’m doing,” he says. “No matter if I’m in a shop or in a field, as long as I can actually do the work and see the progress, [I’m good].”
After a rotation schedule his freshman year, the newly graduated senior from Sussex Tech settled on carpentry as his main focus throughout high school. Since then, he has learned many different aspects of building.
“My sophomore year, we had modules [focused on] building a house — how to build a floor, estimating costs, how to lay out rafters,” says Watts. With each new part of the house the students learned to build, they’d try it out in real life through a cumulative project of a shed.
Once senior year arrived, Watts was faced with a choice: a capstone project (an assignment that’s meant to showcase all that you’ve learned throughout high school) or work-based learning. Opting for work-based learning, Watts would work at his paid internship at Master Interiors in Milford for two weeks and then would return to school for another two weeks.
“Most kids would still work those days they had to go to school, and you only had to do bookwork. We only had reading and math [as it was] all we needed,” he says.
At his internship, Watts would participate in “commercial work,” which involved the use of steel rather than wood. He was offered the opportunity to join Master Interiors full time — complete with a raise, a 401k, and more — but declined, as he intended to study adventure recreational management at West Virginia Tech on an Army scholarship. Watts hopes to start his own company eventually.
Like many middle schoolers, and early high schoolers, Watts debated entering the trades compared to a more “traditional” high school path. He recommends that those who are in the same boat consider the following: “Do you want to go to college or not? It’s a really hard thing to pick at that age. If college is not for [you] or not [your] thing, go to trade.”
Because she grew up always insecure of her teeth, Jazabel Reinhold knew a career in dental care was her calling: “I [want] to help people fix their teeth and make them feel better about themselves.”
The newly graduated Reinhold took part in the Dental Services and Technology program at Sussex Tech. Here, she would take different dental classes and eventually secured work at a dental office her senior year.
At the dental office, Reinhold worked as a dental assistant, where she learned “chairside with the doctor.”
“When I went to work, I learned the hands-on stuff; I learned dental procedures like restorative silver fillings and crowns,” she says.
Reinhold loved learning in class and during work as “the education coursework gives me a foundation, while hands-on gives me more experience.” At her job, Reinhold made around $9.25 per hour when she first started, but then received a raise to $10.50 because of her work ethic. (The average salary for a fully qualified dental hygienist ranges from $29.45 an hour at the entry level to $38.19 for more experienced workers, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.)
Reinhold says the dental program at her tech school gave her a more realistic lens on the future: “When I was learning [through] the textbook, I was like ‘Oh, maybe I want to be a dentist or orthodontist,’ but working in an actual office made me change my mind because I could see what a hygienist does,” says Reinhold.
Because of what she learned in high school, Reinhold now plans on attending Delaware Technical Community College, which will enable her to learn more skills and get more certification (specifically, she hopes to obtain a dental hygienist license). Reinhold says the office manager at the dental office where she worked told her they will “always have a spot open for me,” and would cater to her fall schedule.
For anyone worrying over whether college is right for them and whether a decision to skip college will potentially hinder their career, Reinhold tries to ease those fears: “College isn’t everything. People get really great jobs right out of high school.”
What started as casual drawing at school turned into an actual career for Aatiq Vann, a 2019 graduate of Hodgson Vo-Tech.
“A teacher suggested I go to Hodgson and take tech drafting,” he says. “When you get to Hodgson, you take many different classes. I liked the masonry and the teacher — but do I want to stand up all day and lay brick? This was a dead giveaway, so I went with drafting. I like drawing anyways.”
Through the technical drafting program at his school, Vann was able to learn many different computer programs, like Revit, AutoCAD and SketchUp, which are essential to his current job at Bancroft Construction. He says the experience “gave me the stepping stones to how those programs work.”
Vann’s “main priority was a co-op job.” He was offered an internship at Bancroft, where he did earn money. After spending time there, he says he was presented with a guaranteed job after high school.
“They told me it’s not an if but a when,’’ says Vann.
At Bancroft, Vann helps “deliver the visuals for clients for different projects — commercial or residential. If you need a house built, we’ll show you your pipelines, electrical lines, etc. I sketch, design, render, etc.”
He can even use drones to “take pictures every two weeks” to document the progress of a project being built. This is especially used for projects being built “from the ground up.” Vann is able to create 3D models virtually.
Average salaries for drafters range in the mid-$50,000s, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
For younger kids who worry about what life after high school will look like if they don’t go to college, Vann has this to say: “[Everyone says] it has to be college and you have [to have a] degree, but you really don’t.”
He emphasizes that you have to look at your life over the long term and determine where you see yourself. College, in his mind, doesn’t have to be a part of that; after all, going a different route worked out just fine for him.