Sebastian Jurczak took his first machine shop class during his freshman year at East Leyden High School in Franklin Park, Ill. It sparked an interest in manufacturing classes, and he expanded his skills with CAD courses and other electives.
The manufacturing and design trade "was something I really enjoyed," said Jurczak, now 24 and working in the field as he pursues certifications and an associate's degree, all while supporting himself and avoiding student loan debt.
High school administrators say more students are considering options outside of four-year degrees, which are financially out of reach for many. With some of the fastest-growing fields attainable without a university education, students are pursuing a variety of career routes, including technical training for skilled trades that sometimes begins in hands-on high school courses.
Matt Liberatore, director of professional learning and student services at Arlington Heights, Ill.-based Township High School District 214, said students now are "much more in tune to the finances and what that degree is going to cost." He said counselors and teachers work with the students to understand what's right for them. "Is the place you're going to go going to be the most economically affordable for what you want to do? I think there are many ways to get to the end point."
In recognizing college isn't right for everyone, and in some cases isn't necessary for a well-paying job, District 214, through a partnership with Bosch Group _ the parent company of Mount Prospect-based Robert Bosch Tool Corp. _ recently announced a scholarship for students looking to pursue certificates in trades like welding, HVAC, plumbing and carpentry.
Students are increasingly more realistic when it comes to post-high school plans, said Matt Kirkpatrick, interim assistant principal for student learning at Oak Park River Forest High School. A recent internal survey at the school revealed "far more than 10 percent" of students weren't sure if they would go on to college _ a number that surprised administrators. And it wasn't because of their grades, Kirkpatrick said.
"A lot of it had to do with the idea of (college) being a real investment, and being sure that investment was going to pay off," he said.
The school has tried to further develop its curriculum to include a variety of classes to give students a sense of career possibilities. Like other Chicago-area high schools, OPRF offers courses with dual credit, so students can work toward college or certification program credit. This can lead to quicker, well-paying jobs that could fund a more advanced degree, Kirkpatrick said.
Jurczak, who came to the United States at age 12 when his family moved from Poland, said he knew language and financial barriers meant a traditional four-year university immediately after high school graduation might not be his path. But he still wanted a career and to eventually further his education.
In the classes through his school's Career Pathways curriculum, Jurczak gained skills that set him up for employment even before his graduation in 2013. During his junior year, he was an apprentice at a tool and dye company, and by his senior year, he was earning $13 an hour _ a well-paying job compared with typical part-time gigs for students.
Jurczak now works as a product development specialist at a manufacturing company and will soon complete a certification in mold-making, as well as his associate's degree at Harper College. He said he will likely then finish his bachelor's degree in business but wants to stay in the manufacturing sector. In the years since high school, he said he's never had trouble finding a job and never had to take out a loan.
"Many (students) think in order to be successful and make a good living ... you have to go to a university" right away, he said. "I know many people who go to a university and they don't have a job, or they have to start at the bottom. I feel really secure."
At Leyden High School District 212, the curriculum is designed to "respect all pathways," said Frank Holthouse, director of careers and community outreach. That includes manufacturing courses like the ones Jurczak took, and several other fields, including construction, business, health science, early childhood and culinary skills.
Local employers provide input on the courses, so they best fit what is needed to get jobs, Holthouse said.
Jarrod Nagurka, advocacy and public affairs manager at the Virginia-based Association for Career and Technical Education, said there's a growing need for workers in these skilled trades _ jobs that require more than a high school diploma but not a bachelor's degree. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the top four fastest-growing occupations do not require a bachelor's degree: solar panel installer, wind turbine technician, home health aide and personal care aide.
But often people don't understand what that work entails or the pay it offers, Nagurka said.
"Sometimes people think of a dirty factory floor, and that's really not what these programs are like anymore," he said. "We're talking about jobs that require serious skills and training ... in today's digital and tech world."
A wind turbine technician, Nagurka points out, is a field that is predicted to grow by 96 percent by 2026, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. And the median salary for those jobs in 2017 was nearly $54,000 a year, data shows.
"Four-year institutions are important and, for some students, will be very beneficial," Nagurka said. "But it's not the only option."
Still, a path other than traditional college "is still sort of a hard sell" to parents and students, said Cindy Stover, executive director of the Illinois Association for Career and Technical Education. "There's still a mindset that a four-year university is the way to go."
And so many jobs go unfilled "because no one has the skills to do them." In Illinois, she said, that includes many jobs in the construction trades.
The Village of Park Forest developed the South Suburban Trades Initiative in partnership with two local community colleges as a way to build interest in the construction trades, while also fixing up foreclosed homes abandoned after the housing market crash, said David Tracy, village project manager.
Work on the first home started in August, with much of it completed by students in building trades classes at Prairie State College in Chicago Heights and South Suburban College in South Holland. Tracy said that once the renovation is complete this spring, the village will sell it and use the proceeds to fix more village-owned abandoned homes with the students.
Eugene Damiani, instructor at South Suburban College, said interest in the building trades slowed after the housing crash affected job prospects in those fields. Prior to 2008, the college had a waiting list for these hands-on classes.
"It's starting to pick back up," he said. "Everybody's noticing you can make a livable wage doing construction."
Keyanna White, 23, of Harvey, Ill., is a South Suburban student working on the home in Park Forest, Ill. She said she enrolled in the community college's construction courses after earning a bachelor's degree in communications that didn't leave her with many job prospects.
White said she pursued college mostly to fulfill her family's wishes, but when she couldn't find a job in radio broadcasting, "I started asking myself, what exactly do I want to do? What will make me happy?"
As a kid whose love of playing in the dirt grew to a love of building things, White decided to pursue a certificate in construction and hopes to someday own her own business. She said she knows she can make a good living as a contractor, and doesn't have to pay much to earn a construction trade certificate after "already growing broke for four years."