By Ryan Blessing, Sun staff writer
WESTERLY — Several local high school students are getting their foot in the door early at submarine builder Electric Boat, thanks to a course that teaches them valuable trade skills.
They’re taking a maritime sheet metal class offered by the Westerly Education Center as part of the workforce training program. It’s the first time the center has opened the program to students who are intent on entering the workforce right after graduation, which is coming soon for some.
Four of the five students in the program are seniors set to graduate in the next two weeks: three from Westerly High School and one from Wheeler High School in North Stonington. The fifth student, Nico Paldan, is a junior at Westerly.
“I just thought it was a good opportunity to learn something and have a trade under my belt,” Paldan said.
The 200-hour course is a mix of classroom instruction and a more “hands on” lab environment in the center’s work area, which features machinery, drafting tables and a mock-up of a submarine interior.
“Right now we’re learning how to draw out designs,” Paldan said. “A lot of the first week or two is about overall safety, EB rules. Now we’re learning how to use a lot of the machines and draw out plans. Pretty soon we’ll be making stuff and that will be cool.”
Student Jacob Schafer said the group has made pencil boxes.
“Just to get used to folding and etching in the sheet metal,” Schafer said. Ultimately, he plans to learn welding, but figured learning sheet metal work would help round out his skills.
The students put in a full day of school, then twice a week and every other Saturday attend the sheet metal class for three hours.
The course began six weeks ago and continues until the end of July. After that, the graduating seniors who are at least 18 will be able to apply to Electric Boat, continue to college, as Junie Rios intends to do, or seek employment elsewhere.
All the students said they value the one-on-one instruction and the experience of teacher John Koussa.
Koussa on Tuesday had the group — Paldan, Rios, Schafer, Caleb Bogue and Paul Fiore — using drafting equipment to practice designing gored elbows, which are common in submarine ductwork.
The Westerly High School Alumni Scholarship Fund, the North Stonington Education Foundation and the Westerly Educational Endowment Fund contributed money to fund the course for the high school students.
“Without that, it wouldn’t have been possible for us to pilot this initiative between the two states, with North Stonington and Westerly,” Westerly Education Center Executive Director Amy Grzybowski said.
The alumni fund has raised $67,000 and given out more than $25,000 since it began the scholarships in 2014. The fund’s purpose is to support graduating Westerly seniors who enter the trades.
It gave two $2,800 scholarships to fund two of the students in the program. Likewise, the Westerly educational endowment funded two Westerly students and the North Stonington Education Foundation supported Bogue, a Wheeler High senior.
There’s plenty of work waiting at Electric Boat, said EB human resources manager Brian Howard, who is a Westerly High School alumnus.
“We have over two decades of backlog work right now,” he said. “Really, the sky’s the limit with trades.”