As Joliet West High School junior Mike Wilson pulled on a pair of gloves, grabbed a thick yellow rope and prepared to lasso a steel "button" or post several feet away, he paused to yell a comment to his teacher.
"If I get this, I want an 'A' on the next test," Wilson joked to teacher Joe Contreras.
Wilson nailed the throw, much to the delight of his cheering classmates, and his next assignment will earn that "A" grade, Contreras said. But Wilson roped more than a good grade; he might have discovered a possible post-high school career Ė a maritime career.
The rope exercise simulated what it would be like to tie barges together, and it was part of deckhand training presented to more than 80 juniors and seniors from Joliet West and Joliet Central high schools and Grundy Area Vocational Center during the "Who Works the Rivers" program. The program, which was held at the Forest Preserveís Four Rivers Environmental Education Center in Channahon, was created by RiverWorks Discovery, a national river education and outreach program.
The students also attended a maritime-themed career fair in the morning at Skateland Recreation Center in Channahon and they toured the traveling "Water|Ways" exhibit, a collaboration between the Smithsonian Institution and Illinois Humanities, which ended its six-week run at Four Rivers on Saturday.
Tina Riley, facility supervisor at Four Rivers, said the "Who Works the River" program was designed to teach students about jobs available on and along the rivers, which is a perfect fit for Four Rivers and Will County because of the barge traffic on local waterways.
Riley said the "Who Works the River" program and career fair will become an annual event at Four Rivers.
"This is an industry and job opportunity that most kids donít know about," she said. "It can be a really good career option, and there are a lot of entry-level positions that you can get into with just a high school education. So if the students know that there are good-paying jobs, they will stay in school and graduate. It gives them an incentive."
Maritime work can be hard, and barge workers are away from home a lot, said Mike Blaske, marine superintendent for Lemont-based Illinois Marine Towing Inc. But Blaske, who led the deckhand training on Friday, also informed the students that employees can earn six-figure salaries after being employed with the company for six years.
Blaske said the company participates in many outreach events in an effort to make young people aware of the areaís infrastructure and its waterways.
"It is important for us to be involved in the education of our youth as they are our future employees and leaders," he said in an email after the event.
As a result of his experience at the program, student Wilson said he would consider a career on the river upon graduation.
"Honestly, I wanted to look into this," he said. "At first I thought about being a firefighter, but this has really caught my attention. It looks really fun."
After attending the program, James Blankenship, a senior at Joliet West High School, said he was giving serious thought to a maritime career as a welder for a shipyard. He said he has taken welding all four years of high school, so he has the right background for the job.
Teacher Contreras said it was a great idea to expose kids who are enrolled in vocational arts programs to another industry.
"This has been a perfect day," said Contreras, who teaches welding, metal and shop classes. "So far, itís very educational and the kids are very interested. We're trying to help them out with finding jobs. And Iím glad you guys invited us. This is great."
Tim Grygiel, a vocational education teacher at Joliet Central High School, said the program was a good fit for his students.
"Some of my students aren't going to go to college," he said. "They're going to go right out into the workforce. So they're researching careers."
He said he thinks the students will look at the rivers around them in a new way as a result of Friday's program.
"I think the kids are getting an idea how much the rivers really mean to the community," he said.
Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock