July/August 2022 Issue
June 19, 2022

Ulster BOCES students gain real-world experience, help community

Author: Sylvia Saunders
Source: NYSUT United
ulster boces
Caption: Ulster BOCES students work with Saugerties counselor Mike Catalano, fifth from right; Ulster BOCES teaching assistant Michelle Rosu, center; and Ulster BOCES Electrical Construction instructor Bob Jones, fourth from left. Photo provided.

It’s one thing to learn about electrical wiring in textbooks and classroom practice stations.

It’s quite another to get hands-on skills by going out into the community, wiring a whole house and being there when the keys are handed over to a grateful family.

In a unique partnership, Ulster BOCES students are not only learning hands-on electrical skills, they’re also learning the value of giving back to your community. Saugerties school counselor Michael Catalano, a master electrician, helped set up the partnership after working with the local Habitat for Humanity group himself. Habitat is a nonprofit organization that recruits volunteers to build affordable homes for those in need.

At first just a few students volunteered with Habitat on Saturdays, under the supervision of Catalano and Ulster BOCES Electrical Construction instructor Bob Jones. But this year, with strong support from BOCES and school district administrators, the hands-on field work was incorporated into the school day — enabling 44 juniors and seniors to research, plan and actually do the electrical work in two Habitat homes.

The students do everything from planning the location of electrical outlets to hanging electrical panels to running the wires. They also learn about working as a team; following the National Electrical Code and municipal regulations; and navigating challenging work conditions like cold temperatures or working without a schematic. For one house, which was built for a family with a young girl in a wheelchair, the students needed to work within ADA requirements and consider things like lowering switch heights.

“For many of the students, this was their first time at a construction site,” Jones said. “They love it. They’re working alongside other trades people like carpenters and HVAC people. And best of all, it ties all the classroom theory into real-world practice.” “At the same time, they’re truly helping people in need,” Catalano said. “It really puts everything in perspective when you meet the families. There’s a tremendous sense of satisfaction when you help make a family’s dream of homeownership come true.”

There are other benefits, too. At a time when there is a tremendous labor shortage in the trades, Catalano is hopeful that these kind of programs can help spur more interest in the industry.

“The first thing I tell my students is that there’s a tremendous demand for electricians,” said Jones, who worked 17 years as an electrician before becoming a BOCES instructor. “Our kids are scooped up immediately — doing rewarding work and making good money. It’s a highly desirable career.”

“For recruitment, we need to change the mindset that going into the trades is something less,” Catalano said. “White collar and blue collar work are equally valuable. And if we make the instructional learning hands-on and meaningful like this, the program will be even more popular.”

In the future Catalano hopes the idea can be expanded to students in other trades — and helping other people in need. “Wouldn’t it be cool to stretch this into helping the elderly couple that can’t afford to have their home safely rewired?“ he asked. “The possibilities for community work are endless.”