Few teens have jobs building missiles lined up after graduation.
That’s what Michael Reaves, a soon-to-be-graduate of Pleasant Valley High School and the Calhoun County Career Academy, plans to do after he doffs his cap and gown this month, working at General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems in Anniston. Career Academy director Kevin Lockridge said the company called the school looking for students in precision machining classes with experience and drive; Lockridge said Reaves has both.
As a new employee, Reaves will work as a lathe operator in the evening, while he goes to school at Gadsden State Community College during the day. He said he likes to work with his hands and doesn’t mind getting dirty, so the work suits him. So does the paycheck. The Bureau of Labor Statistics put the median hourly wage for Anniston-area machinists at $23.52 in 2017.
“I want to buy a house, a car, all of that kind of stuff,” Reaves said. “I want to make sure everything is paid off and have enough money to take my family out when I have kids, take my wife out.”
Reaves said he’ll fabricate hydraulics that screw into the end of missiles that stretch 4 or 5 feet long, part of the rocket system that will drive the devices to their targets. Once he’s proven himself by working the lathe, he can move up to programming the machine. Eventually he wants to be what he called a “setup technician,” who can program multiple machines at the facility.
Reaves is one of a handful of students in local career tech programs with jobs already waiting after graduation.
A’Liebia Morris, who graduates from Anniston High School this month, expects to join Anniston assisted living facility NHC Place, where she’ll work as a certified nursing assistant. She completed clinical trials there as part of the high school’s career tech program, and said she can start work once she passes her CNA certification exam this month. She said her everyday tasks will include taking patients’ blood pressure and heart rates, helping them change and keeping up with their everyday health needs.
Morris said she’s wanted to be a nurse since the sixth grade, when emergency services workers responded to a call about her grandmother. Though her grandmother died, she said, watching responders work “sparked something” inside her.
“She needed help I couldn’t provide for her, but maybe one day I could do that for someone. Old, young, anything; someone always needs help,” she said.
Lockridge said college might not be the answer for every student, as evidenced by graduates like Reaves and Morris. Though both do plan to attend Gadsden State, they’ve trained through high school for specific positions they can start immediately after graduation. Reaves said his job requires a two-year degree or three years of technical school, requirements that would have held him back for years after graduation. Morris said she didn’t believe she’d have had the time to prepare for the CNA exam after leaving school, with work and bills hanging over her head.
“I think that would be the last thing on my mind,” Morris said.
Lockridge, a former math teacher, said the parents of his generation believed success was tied to a college degree. Even as tuition costs rise, “undecided” is a top-ranking major in universities, he said, with graduates loaded down by student debt for degrees that might not translate into paying jobs. Meanwhile, he said, improving unemployment rates in the state are at odds with the expansion of manufacturing operations.
“There’s not enough kids to meet the need that’s out there, which is a good problem for the kids,” Lockridge said.
The Anniston Star's 2019 Graduation tab, featuring all of our area high schools' new graduates.
He said trade jobs like machining and welding have a stigma attached to them; many people believe they’re difficult, low-paying jobs carried out in hot warehouses. That’s not always the case, he said, noting that manufacturing companies are taking educators on tours to see their facilities. Many of them are clean and air-conditioned, he noted, and while low-paying jobs for low-skill workers do exist, he said skilled workers have a different experience waiting for them. Students like Reaves can help break the stigma surrounding work in the trades, he explained, simply by being successful and visible.
“When you ask kids what they want to do, they say the medical field, or be an engineer, a teacher, a coach, things they know of. Everybody knows someone in the medical field but how many kids know someone as a machinist?” Lockridge said. “They don’t even know that’s out there to be interested in.”
Morris said underclassmen stop and ask her about her scrubs, which she often wears to school, and she uses that as an icebreaker to discuss enrolling in career tech courses.
Both students have long-term goals. Reaves said he wants to open a machine shop of his own one day, starting small with a lathe and expanding and hiring as the business grows.
Morris said she wants to become a registered nurse one day. She said her biggest goal is graduation from a four-year college and earning her white nurse’s coat. After that, she wants to help deliver babies.
“I want to feel like I have a grasp on life, and when you’ve just brought life into the world, when you’re doing something to do with new life in the world, I feel like that’s a grasp on life, right there,” she said.