BOCES carpentry coming to Mattituck underscores demand for a more trade-focused education

With the student count at Eastern Suffolk BOCES on the rise, its reputation may soon follow suit.

Enrollment in career and technical education at ESBOCES, a cooperative program which offers trade oriented courses to students in 51 school districts from Brentwood to Montauk, has consistently increased over the past five years. Its 2022-2023 programs counted 2,040 students — a 10-year high — including 314 from high schools across the North Fork and Shelter Island.

To meet the growing demand, ESBOCES has partnered with the Mattituck-Cutchogue Union Free School District to offer a carpentry course at Mattituck High School. Juniors and seniors can opt to take the class for one or two years, during which they will work in the school’s soon-to-be-revamped wood shop. Through the course, students can earn high school and college credits as well as various industry certifications.

ESBOCES hosted a showcase at Southold’s Peconic Community Center last Wednesday to promote their Mattituck program and other offerings as well as to try to dispel misconceptions about their services and the students who use them.

“When I grew up … there was this perception that [BOCES] was for kids who weren’t going to go to college, or were afraid they weren’t going to graduate,” said Leah Arnold, ESBOCES director for career, technical and adult education. “Probably the biggest misconception is that it’s for kids that aren’t ready for post-secondary [schooling.] It fluctuates year to year, but 80% to 90% of kids [have gone on] to more education over the last two decades.”

BOCES, which stands for Boards of Cooperative Educational Services, are public organizations created in 1948 by the New York State Legislature to facilitate collaboration amongst local school districts. The original intention, according to the BOCES website, was to expand equal educational opportunities to smaller, rural school districts where services were otherwise “uneconomical, inefficient or unavailable.”

In recent years, many of the program’s offerings have seen much higher demand. 

“Right now what’s really hot is construction trades,” Ms. Arnold said. “The manufacturing trades like welding … [and] our electrical class have a waiting list, plumbing has a waiting list. HVAC, I’ve got three full-time teachers for that.”

Importantly, the organization’s one- and two-year programs are not intended to be the end of a student’s education. Upon completion, participants earn college credits and industry certifications that can help them whether they attend college or enter the workforce.

Phoenix Samolewski, a junior at Mattituck High School who will complete his second year of ESBOCES’ carpentry program at Bellport High School next year, is embracing the different options open to him following graduation.

“I’m going to some sort of SUNY college to get at least a two-year degree … I can still use that to get a job rather than someone who doesn’t have a degree,” he said. “I want to pursue construction, but I’m not sure exactly what. I like building houses, it’s interesting, but I got to see.”

Robert Van Brunt, administrator for ESBOCES adult education programs, said that while misconceptions persist, the reputations of so-called “essential workers” have improved since the pandemic, potentially making careers in the trades more attractive. He added that students like Phoenix are in high demand on the North Fork, whether they go straight to work at an entry level or develop skills through on-the-job training of apprenticeships.

“We get employers [scouting] all the time, people who own mom and pop construction companies,” he said. “And because [Phoenix] … has OSHA-10 and OSHA-30 [certifications] behind him already, he can go into the Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters Apprenticeship Program with hours already under his belt.”

Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell, who attended last week’s BOCES fair, referred to the organization as “one of the most unheralded resources for young people and for adults alike,” and one that can fill a void in the local workforce.

“Not only does [BOCES] provide younger residents with skills that can be employed and utilized locally, and they can earn incomes and good livings locally, it will fill the real needs of the town: tradesmen and craftsmen,” he said. “There is a huge demand for skilled labor so that [businesses] can function. You see help wanted ads all the time [for] carpenters, cabinetmakers, plumbers, automotive shops, electricians, you name it.”

Adding a new BOCES carpentry course is just one aspect of local school’s increased focus on technical education. The Mattituck program, which is open to students from the Southold, Greenport and Shelter Island school districts, will be housed in the carpentry shop in the school’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics wing, which will undergo renovations this summer, according to Mattituck-Cutchogue superintendent Shawn Petretti.

“In the last couple of years, we introduced welding and small engine repair [electives], and they have become very, very popular with our students,” Mr. Petretti said. “We’ll have a metal shop, and then we’re also expanding another area for our robotics and engineering programs.”