I was introduced to career and technical education (CTE) when I was a high school senior questioning what I wanted to do with my life after graduation. I wasn’t sure college was an option, but I’d spent most of my junior and senior years looking for jobs with no success. It seemed nothing was turning out right for me.
Then I met Ms. Chapman, the career coordinator at Woodruff Career and Technical Center. She came to my school to talk about the CTE programs available to students. Ms. Chapman told me that with CTE classes, and specifically classes in the construction trades, I could get a paying job while still in school. I’d always wanted a career in construction trades; I just didn’t know how to get my foot in the door.
I enrolled in Mr. Brix’s work-based construction course. To be honest, the initial classwork—spending most of our days on computers getting our OSHA 30 certification—was not my favorite. But we needed to be ready for whatever job we might want to have. We received our forklift and CPR certifications and completed other training, and then things got exciting as we started taking field trips to potential job sites.
One day we visited Alcast Company, which manufactures aluminum castings. The plant’s five buildings include a computer numerical control machine shop and a foundry, where metal is melted into giant hot pools and molded into castings for parts supplied to customers like Caterpillar and Amazon. There’s also a core building, where workers make the sand cores that fit inside the metal molds, and a finishing building, where the parts are sanded or grinded down until they’re perfect and ready for shipping. And then there’s the maintenance department, with technicians who are trained to maintain and repair all the plant’s machines. Everything I saw was so cool. I knew immediately that I needed to work there.
It was not the obvious career choice. The work is hard, the foundry is hot, and I was the only woman in all of the buildings I’d toured. I’d been one of few girls in the construction course as well, which was difficult at times. But at Alcast, I didn’t see an obstacle; I saw an opportunity. Women can do this work too. Someone just needed to open the door and make a way for others. I wanted to be that person.
Mr. Brix helped me get an internship so I could see if Alcast was truly a good fit. I was only able to finish half of the internship before everything closed because of the pandemic. But Alcast reached out to me; they were still open, and if I was interested in working, they had a position for me. Of course I was interested! I did general office work until I turned 18, then transitioned to maintenance. The work is complicated and challenging, and there’s no room for error. But I never lacked help. My boss and coworkers were always there to answer my questions, and even though I was no longer in school, Mr. Brix was also there for me, willing to help however I needed.
It’s been two years now, and I love what I do. No two days are the same, the work is constant, and every day I challenge myself to learn and grow. I’ve accomplished my goal of opening the door for other women here, and I take time to greet the women now working throughout the plant. There are only a handful of us, but we support each other. And Alcast is paying for me to go to school for my associate degree in industrial applied sciences. My days are long and busy; between classes and work, I regularly put in 11- to 14-hour days. But I’m not afraid of hard work, and I know what an amazing opportunity I’ve been given.
That’s why I didn’t hesitate when Mr. Brix asked me to speak at Woodruff’s year-end dinner. Because of him, I’ve met so many wonderful people and made great connections, and I’m thriving in my job. I want to make that kind of difference in other students’ lives. So I told the graduating students the same thing I tell those who come to tour or intern at Alcast: CTE shows you what’s possible and gives you the skills to create a great future for yourself—you just have to be willing to put in the work.
I don’t know what’s next for me. I could pursue more education with an engineering degree or spend 20 years just learning how to do this job the best I can. I do know that I’m grateful Ms. Chapman and Mr. Brix found me. College may not be for everyone, but a career is. And getting an early start on a career through CTE changed my life.
Kianna Pittman is a former student of Woodruff Career and Technical Center and a graduate of Manual High School in Peoria, Illinois. After a Woodruff internship with a leading local manufacturing plant in the spring of 2020, Kianna accepted full-time employment at the plant. She is currently completing an associate degree in industrial applied sciences.
[Photo courtesy of Peoria Public Schools]