WEST VALLEY CITY — This year, students in Bill Catnull's wood shop class at Granger High School will be building graphite longboards, guitars and wooden safes. When they graduate, they could be building parts for the F-35 fighter jet, rocket engines with Orbital ATK or Boeing 757s.
That's the hope of teachers, state leaders and several aerospace companies who plan to give students a more direct and accelerated pathway into some of Utah's largest industries.
The Utah Aerospace Pathways program being piloted this year will allow high school seniors to get paid internships, graduate with a certificate in aerospace manufacturing and immediately begin a career, the Governor's Office of Economic Development announced Friday.
"It's exciting, the potential," Catnull said. "I'm a woodworker, but at the same time, I'm giving these guys a chance to move into a field that they would never otherwise have."
Next door to Catnull's wood shop, Chuck Murillo is passing out safety glasses to students in his welding class prior to introducing them to the shop. He sees a similar potential for his students as they learn the basics of what could become a profitable career through the pathway program.
"It's a great way to get kids started, learn responsibility, learn the tools, get out in the industry and be able to take charge when they get out of high school. Then they have a career path," Murillo said.
Collaboration began in March between several state agencies, education leaders and six industry partners: Boeing, Harris, Hexcel, Hill Air Force Base, Janicki and Orbital ATK. Since then, education leaders worked with the companies to develop academic coursework that aligns with the skills they're looking for in graduates. Teachers at each school also participated in internships over the summer to get up to date on what they'll be teaching.
This year, the pilot program will be implemented at Clearfield, Davis, Layton and Viewmont high schools in the Davis School District, as well as Granger, Kearns and Hunter high schools in the Granite School District.
Between 40 and 60 students will enroll in a specialized set of courses, participate in a 48-hour paid internship during their senior year and take classes from either Davis Applied Technology College or Salt Lake Community College during their second semester.
Upon completing the program and passing pre-employment requirements, students will be certified to begin working with an aerospace company in Utah at a "family sustaining wage," according to the Governor's Office of Economic Development.
If the pilot program is successful, the Utah Aerospace Pathways program will expand to include other school districts and additional students.
Prior to this week, a career in aerospace manufacturing was never on Braxton Fillerup's radar. But now that he stands on the threshold of a new opportunity, the senior at Clearfield High School is eager to get started.
"I think it's going to be pretty cool," Fillerup said. "I think it's going to be a really fun experience to go and learn how to do composites then get a paid internship after you're done. Having that internship kind of puts your foot in the door for a career."
It takes a load off his parents' minds as they help him prepare for what lies ahead after high school.
"It's huge. He has a really clear idea now of where he wants to go," said Troy Fillerup, Braxton's father. "What this program is going to do is just really make that in stone and really solidify his thoughts on that so that right after high school, he can get a job and get started right away in something that he already knows he likes. It's kind of one worry that gets taken off our plate.
"It's pretty exciting for us," he said. "I'm going to kind of live vicariously through him."
Many of the industry partners have also agreed to reimburse students' tuition toward advanced degrees after working for the company for one year. Students can also pursue training within the company.
That part caught Josh Morrill's eye Friday.
"I think it's a good opportunity just so I wouldn't have to stress about looking for a job and doing all that and having financial stability after I graduate," said Morrill, a senior at Granger High School. "I definitely had plans to go to college before I heard about this. I just had to figure out where and how to get the money. This is making it easier, for sure."
Deneece Huftalin, president of Salt Lake Community College, said the students will be able to "stack" the credentials they earn over time, both in higher education and on the job, and improve their chances of advancing in the companies where they work. She said the program will also further Utah's progress toward state leaders' goal of having 66 percent of Utah's workforce having completed a post-high school education by 2020.
"This announcement today is an example of the innovation and the thinking and the collaboration that has come together as a result of trying to attain that very lofty goal," Huftalin said. "Sometimes things don't move real quickly in higher education. This is busting that truth."
While similar pathways are common at colleges and universities, it's perhaps the first time such a large-scale partnership has taken place between industry and K-12 education in Utah, according to Gov. Gary Herbert.
"We do have this emphasis on education here in the state of Utah in trying to raise the bar in skills and achievement so that they'll line up with the demands of the marketplace. This is an example of unprecedented partnership," Herbert said. "All those people working together are now starting a new program, which I think is going to be a wonderful addition to our educational opportunities in the state. This is going to translate into a brighter economy, more prosperity, continued economic expansion and good jobs for our young people."
Sandra Hemmert, career and technical education coordinator for the Granite School District, said the program will give students one more reason to do their best academically and push on to graduation.
"As you look at our student population here, it's a low-income area," Hemmert said. "If we can get them that leg up in a company and also get them to go back for further training, that's our goal.
"It's just exciting," she said.