Tri-County students wire up Habitat houses Dillon Gallagher, a softspoken 18-year-old in a faded flannel shirt and blue jeans, absentmindedly gestures with a screwdriver as he explains the “carpenter’s knot” he’s currently untying. “Before I got to Gehlauf’s class, I didn’t even know the wire goes under the screw on these outlets,” he chuckles. “It’s just common sense now.”
Gallagher and the other 14 students in Dave Gehlauf’s electrical trades classroom laboratory at Tri-County Career Center tackle authentic problems encountered by professional electricians. The illegal circuit many of them have struggled with for days demands a close analysis of the problem and control over the basics of electricity in order to bring the wiring up to code.
Students with tool belts full of wire cutters of various sizes, hammers, pliers and other sundry equipment work out the project with each other and Gehlauf, preparing themselves for wiring up a real house.
Gehlauf's best students are often recruited right out of his classes. He receives regular visits from Columbus electrical firms Romanoff and Claypool, looking for the next batch of skilled electricians. Gehlauf has taught electrical trades at Tri-County since 1986, and for 15 of those years, he’s partnered with Habitat for Humanity to give his students the vital off-site experience of “wiring up” a real house. “The partnership helped both of us. They get good quality work and my students get field experience,” he said. So far this year, Gehlauf’s crew of students has wired two Habitat Houses.
When the Tri-County students arrive on the Habitat House site, the houses are just shells – studs, plywood, windows and a roof. From this point, Gehlauf, a self-proclaimed “safety stickler,” takes the students through the game plan, and carefully assigns each student a room or task. The students then drill holes, run wires and set boxes. After initial wiring, the students wait for the insulators and drywall crews to do preliminary finish work in each room; afterwards, the students return to attach fixtures and make sure all circuits are go. “You work your hardest at the house,” Gallagher said. “We’ve got to do it the right way the first time because you can’t afford to waste wire.”
The students only have a few hours each day to work on the Habitat Houses because the time spent in the house must coincide with class time. The students learn to focus and work efficiently, carrying over tasks from day to day. Austin Deitrick, a junior at Tri-County, said, “The work on a real job is fun.” At one point, he and his classmate realized their crawl-space light wasn’t working the way it should. The two joked about how it took them one and half hours “poking their arms in holes in the dry wall,” to fix the wiring, “hoping to God we could fix it without tearing the walls down.”
Erin Black, the only female in the class, said working on the job site taught her aspects of “safety and protocol” she couldn’t have gotten in the classroom. As a senior at Tri-County, Black was spending her second year working on the Habitat Houses. “This year I was ready for it – no problems, no surprises,” she said. “I know the basics, how to get rid of hazards, lock up the copper, tools, and how to be aware of other people on the job.” The students also clearly understand the value of their work for the Habitat for Humanity organization. Alex Pomento, a student who switched from the powerline program to electricity, said, “Every time I’m at the Habitat House, I’m thinking I’m helping someone by wiring up their house,” he said. “A family is going to use it. Maybe they don’t have that much, and I’m helping them out.” Gehlauf said the partnership between Tri-County and Habitat for Humanity makes his electrical trades program “one of the few schools that still work offsite.”
Many career centers, Gehlauf said, build a structure self-contained on their school’s campus and then auction it off to the public. Gehlauf said he wants to get the students as much time off-site as he can. "When we do the Habitat House, kids really learn,” he added. Many companies will count Gehlauf’s students’ work at Tri-County as the first year of a four-year internship program, meaning his students enter an apprenticeship with one year already completed. The students are keenly aware of the demand for their skilled labor. “Doing electricity is the best decision I’ve ever made,” Pomento said. “I’m learning a trade, getting real hands-on experience, so I can leave high school and work.”
The students view their time spent with Gehlauf and on the Habitat Houses as irreplaceable training for a bright future. Many of the students have specific plans for which companies they will try to apprentice with, or where they will try to seek work immediately. Other students like Black have more long-term plans for their work with electricity. Black said because of a field trip she took with the class to Ohio University, she hopes to work with solar power in the future. The partnership between Habitat for Humanity and Tri-County’s Career Center benefits the students, and allows Habitat to keep its costs as low as possible so that families can afford the homes. In fact, the partnership also extends to the drafting program at Tri-County. Under the partnership, Habitat for Humanity builds the homes for community members looking for a nontraditional way to become homeowners, and Tri-County Career Center students help turn the lights on.
By Allison Ricket
Athens NEWS Contributor
Photos courtesy of Habitat for Humanity
of Southeast Ohio