It Looks Like Up From Here

Zach Boring will graduate from high school. He will get an apprenticeship with the Iron Workers Union. And upon its completion, he will embark on a career high above the ground, welding high-rise buildings together. Boring, 18, is one of the top seniors in the welding program at Beaver County Career and Technology Center, a vocational high school about 45 minutes northwest of Pittsburgh in a predominantly rural, white, working-class region of the state. And though Boring acknowledges the economic downturn and the prospect that he may not find a job--"That comes across me every day," he says--he remains confident. "I am going to be an ironworker," he declares with an almost aloof sense of confidence. "There is no doubt."

Boring's optimism at first seems incongruous. Nationwide, nearly 20 percent of 20-to-24-year-olds who lack education beyond a high school diploma were unemployed in 2009, with the numbers even more discouraging for workers, like Boring, still in their teens. Yet, despite these tough realities, many blue-collar Millennials remain upbeat about their prospects. "Lower-income folks work harder and have a positive outlook because they are already at the bottom and it can't get any worse for them," explains Laura DelVecchio, a career counselor at Boring's school. She's echoed by Erica Fox, a counselor at the Community College of Beaver County: "They don't expect to make $100,000 a year. They don't even expect to make $60,000 a year. They will make more money than they make now. They'll do better than where they are at now."

Debbie Intrieri, whose 20-year-old son is studying accounting at nearby Geneva College, concurs. "We don't have the kind of shock of seeing things get tough, because they've always been tough," she says. "For somebody who always had it good and all of a sudden the recession comes and they may have a four-year degree in biology ... that's a bigger kick in the pants." Her son had originally hoped to study journalism, but "he knew after the first year that, unfortunately, to be a journalist or writer, it's tough. He accepted that pretty well and changed his major."

That doesn't make Zach Boring's challenge any less daunting. The recession has affected the welding industry "to the bone," BCCTC instructor Tom Geisler says. "[Businesses] that had hundreds of employees, hundreds of welders, completely shut down.... And they're now just starting to dig themselves out." But tough times have made for a renewed work ethic, according to Geisler. "There were a number of years in the late '90s and up into 2005 where students felt that just by coming to school that they were entitled to a job," he recalls. "This year's class--they have been seeing the recession come for two years and know they need to have great skills."

The Iron Workers Union was scheduled to be one of the record 75 vendors at the high school's annual career fair at the end of March. Boring had anticipated the meet-and-greet for weeks, only to be disappointed when the day finally arrived and the Iron Workers representative didn't show up. Boring got another chance in mid-April, though, when he attended an open house at the union's Pittsburgh office. "They all noticed me," he says.

Still, he won't find out whether he is accepted into the apprenticeship program until after he graduates in early June. Between now and then, Boring will continue doing what he has been doing throughout his senior year--working to keep his grades up and become a better welder. And if the tough job market, or anything else, keeps him from getting into the union on this first go-around, Boring says he'll be undeterred: "I'll just try harder."

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