As an eighth-grader, Leonard Ferguson signed up for the plumbing concentration at Baltimore County’s Western School of Technology and Environmental Science, but he wasn’t sold on being a plumber.
“Originally, my plan was going to the Army,” he told a group of journalists visiting Western Tech as part of a recent Education Writers Association conference.
Lots of teens are turned off by plumbing, Ferguson noted. “When you hear plumbing, it’s all poop jokes.” But he quickly looked past that to the skills to be learned. “I like to work with my hands.”
Turns out he had a knack for it. In April, he won first place in the SkillsUSA Maryland plumbing competition. In June, he will compete nationally in Louisville, Kentucky.
"I love the company I work for and the people I get to work with, even though I am the low man on the totem pole. I do all the dirty jobs,” he said, recounting how he recently spent three hours in standing water, wearing a full rain suit, bailing out a flooded air conditioning unit.
He credits Western Tech plumbing teacher John Kurtz with preparing him well for the on-the-job challenges. Kurtz worked as a plumber for 30 years before becoming a teacher. He’s the kind of no-nonsense teacher who creatively holds his students to high standards. “If you forget your uniform, he’ll hang it from a rafter and you have to figure out how to get it down,” Ferguson said.
Kurtz is also a stickler for safety. “Every time you took off your hard hat in class, you got a zero.” That’s a lesson Ferguson is grateful for on the job. “I can’t tell you how many times I have hit my head and been glad I had my hard hat on.”
The positive feelings are mutual. “Len is an extremely hard worker,” said Kurtz in an email. “No job was too hard for him to do. [He] has always been my go-to student when I need help doing anything.”
If all goes well, Ferguson could reach journeyman level by age 21 and master plumber at 23. His goal is to start his own plumbing business. “That will probably bring me into the college experience later in life, because I’ll want to learn the business side of it,” he said.
“Leonard is so nice and respectful, you just want anything good to come his way,” said Kurtz. He hopes Ferguson will continue to work at G. E. Tignall and advance in the trade. “He was such a natural working with hand and power tools. My time at Western is coming to an end, but I hope my association with Leonard does not.”
Maureen Kelleher is Editorial Partner at Ed Post. She is a veteran education reporter, a former high school English teacher, and also the proud mom of an elementary student in Chicago Public Schools. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. Between 1998 and 2006 she was an associate editor at Catalyst Chicago, the go-to ...