Nexstar’s scholarship applicants show bright promise for our industry.

Warm (relatively) and sunny days in March bring a special joy to people like me who live up north that residents of more temperate climates may not fully understand. It’s like finding golden nuggets in a rock pile. The effect was multiplied on a couple of warm and sunny days in early March of this year when I discovered some golden nuggets of another kind.

As I’ve done for the past several years, I served on a selection committee examining applications for $20,000 worth of scholarship money to be awarded by the Nexstar Legacy Foundation (NLF), the charitable arm of the Nexstar affinity group of PHC and electrical service contractors. NLF asks judges to grade applicants on a point system for various criteria. The job was made difficult by the high caliber of the 22 applicants, not a single one of whom I thought unworthy of support, and all of whom told tales of financial hardship.

Applicants fell into three categories: apprentices, vo-tech students and college students. The latter mostly aspired to mechanical or electrical engineering degrees. One was an MIT student and all of them had sterling academic and extracurricular credentials.

One of the applicants wrote of working with a thermal fluids engineering professor and “producing nanowires to alter fluid transfer … I began to see how nanotechnology can increase the efficiency of heating and cooling systems.”

Among those aspiring to trade careers was one who had been a commercial pilot before getting laid off and now works as an apprentice service tech for a Nexstar member firm.

“From my experience in the aviation field, I have learned that without a solid foundation of skill and knowledge, you have nothing … I hope to someday be the No. 1 service tech (for his employer),” he wrote in an essay portion of the application.

As much as their credentials, I was struck by the idealism and motivations for considering PHC-E careers. “My initial reason for choosing engineering was to design and create things … As I dug deeper, I discovered I could use my talents to better the world,” said one applicant.

The engineering students were fixated on sustainable energy: “I plan to use my education in electrical engineering to work with the government to build a new energy infrastructure capable of meeting the complex demands of our changing society.” (I hope this student learns along the way that he or she has just as good a chance and maybe more of bettering society by working in the private sector rather than government.)

Virtually without exception these applicants were motivated at least in part by green concerns. Recruiters, take note of this as a selling point. Also noteworthy is the relatively advanced age of many applicants, whose experiences and time lines suggested being in their late 20s or even 30s. Many high schoolers who turn noses up at unglamorous trade careers may take a second look after they experience a few hard knocks in the job market.

Some of the applicants were children of plumbers or had experience working for a PHC firm. One wrote movingly: “Ever since I was six years old and my father became a plumber, I have had an extremely healthy respect for the profession … Every day he exhausts himself pulling pipes, installing hardware and even sometimes replacing entire sewer systems because he is dedicated to helping other people, as is characteristic of nearly all plumbers.”

A lot of negativity has been expressed about how hard it is to attract talented young people to this industry. I’m under no illusion that the young people applying for these scholarships are representative of the labor market you have to draw from as a whole. Some of them were sponsored by Nexstar members and all of them seem to have had some networking connection to our industry that made them aware of the scholarships.

Simply having the wherewithal to apply suggests an above-norm resourcefulness. My mind’s eye can’t depict any of them coming in for an interview sporting nose rings and tattoos in all the wrong places.

Life has a way of throwing detours in the way of the best laid plans. Some of these youngsters may get sidetracked into different career paths along the way. But for now it’s good to know there are such talented and dedicated young people out there who admire this industry and aspire to be a part of it. Take a close look at that rock pile for such glittering nuggets.

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