Tuesday, April 11, 2023

High School to Highways program offers chance to jump-start career

By Aisha Dayal

After more than 12 years of taking the school bus, unappetizing school lunches and awkward school dances, you are finally a high school graduate. Congrats! As graduation celebrations come to an end, the pressure to figure out what to do next sets in. College? Travel? Get a job? There are a lot of things to consider.

Meet Matt Karcher, a recent participant in our High School to Highways program. His story includes several turns on the path that led him to our agency. Matt graduated from Sehome High School in Bellingham in 2017. After high school, he attended the University of Portland for two years before taking a year off to work. It was during this gap year that Matt learned about the High School to Highways program from a family member who saw it on our weekly newsletter.

Matt Karcher went from trying to figure out what to do after high school graduation to being a maintenance lead in our Whatcom County area after going through our High School to Highways program.

He was attracted to the program because of the professional development opportunities available through the agency, including trying different maintenance roles or even exploring different paths like operations, business management or engineering. Matt was also drawn to the program because it doesn't require years of experience and looks for eager candidates who demonstrate they are ready to learn and grow on the job.

Matt started the program in August 2021 and in just six short months he completed the training by obtaining his Commercial Driver's License permit (participants have up to one year to get their CDL permit). Only 1½ years after completing the program, he was promoted in February 2023 to a highway maintenance lead technician in Whatcom County. Matt enjoys maintenance because each day is different, there is a large variety of tasks he and his team complete. One day he can be out repairing potholes on Interstate5 in the morning and after lunch, be out on State Route 11 clearing trees and brush along the highway. The work is never done and there are always new opportunities to learn.

Maintenance lead Matt Karcher goes over plans with his crew before a job on SR 11 in Whatcom County

When starting the program, Matt was surprised about the hands-on and fast-paced learning environment, and how quickly he was thrown into the mix. He was out in the field on his third day helping with lane closures on the highway and picking up litter. He challenged himself to take initiative and learn different aspects of the job to learn and grow. It helps that Matt has been surrounded by experienced teammates who foster a supportive environment for training and learning. His team is always pushing each other to do better work and get more done.

From High School to Highways to meeting the Governor

Matt's passion and quick promotions with our agency caught the eye of our Human Resources leadership and he was asked to do a presentation to Governor Inslee as part of a Public Performance Review presentation allowing state agencies to share their efforts in workforce development. On March 22, he found himself sharing his story of how the High School to Highways program gave him a chance to start a career and grow into more responsibility while developing skills that could present him with even more opportunities. He said it was an honor to represent the agency and talk about the program.

Matt encourages other young adults to join the High School to Highways program to get their foot in the door where they can learn, grow and develop. He said this is a good, inclusive opportunity for people who might face financial barriers in their next steps after high school. Tuition assistance is another great benefit and Matt has taken advantage of that as well as he is pursuing a degree in Business Administration at Central Washington University.

Maintenance lead Matt Karcher (center) meets with Governor Inslee and Earl Key, Senior Director of Transportation Equity, after Matt told the Governor about his experience with the High School to Highways program.

So, are you interested?

Matt's story is one of many successes the High School to Highways program has had and we're excited to keep offering it to young adults as a way to dive straight into an exciting and rewarding career.

The program started in 2020 and is open to recent graduates aged 18-23 to join maintenance teams across the state. This isn't an internship; this is a full-time job with full benefits, salary and growth opportunities within the agency.

Matt Karcher and his team clear brush and debris on SR 11 in Bellingham

People who apply and are selected for an interview are then hired into a maintenance role with one of the six regions across the state. Participants in the program can expect to gain on-the-job training, crucial maintenance experience and obtain necessary credentials while being paired with a mentor or coach in the program.

People can apply through the link here. The deadline to apply is May 1.