Trade school provides an answer to his doubts

Panna Kim had planned to enlist in the military. Instead, he learned to be an electrician.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

First, Panna Kim would enroll in Philadelphia Military Academy, pass the drug and background tests, complete the paperwork, and after graduation, enlist in the military, preferably the Marines.

His future would be signed, sealed, and delivered. Meanwhile, he could be a teenager, skateboarding and hanging out with friends.

But then, two weeks before Kim received his diploma, an attack of pre-graduation anxiety struck the Olney teenager hard.

These days, he’s an electrician with certification from Orleans Technical College. He wires and inspects the control systems used to heat and cool trailers used for temporary housing in areas ravaged by natural disasters.

In between was a pathway — trade school — that he had no idea existed, until a friend gave him some advice and changed Kim’s life in the process.

“When I was young, I used to play with a lot of shooting guys,” said Kim, now 19, talking about the video games that captured his attention as a youngster. “So the military caught my eye. Becoming a soldier is what I wanted my career to be.”

As graduation approached , he saw some friends head off to college and others just trying to figure things out.

His future, which once seemed so settled, became murky.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” he said. “All I would have is a high school diploma and no experience.”

He asked himself: “Should the military be my only option?”

“I didn’t want to go to college and be back in school for another four years of my life and then be in debt,” he said.

The way he sees it, there are fewer options for people with advanced degrees and, therefore, more competition for every job. The winner gets the job and can pay off the debt; the loser just gets the debt.

As for the military, “it hit me,” he said. “I would have been in the infantry, which is the most dangerous job. I didn’t want to go and leave my family. I have brothers and I want to spend time with them. You only live once.”

Just before graduation, a friend told Kim about Orleans Technical College, a division of JEVS Human Services. The Northeast Philadelphia campus, which has 358 students, offers training in air conditioning, refrigeration and heating; building maintenance; residential and commercial electricity; plumbing and heating; carpentry; and health care.

Kim had heard, vaguely, about technical schools, but with the word technical in the title, he assumed they had something to do with coding or computers, which didn’t interest him.

But this was different. He started at Orleans in July 2017, a few weeks after graduating from high school.

“I was interested in electricity. There is electricity everywhere in the world. Everyone uses electricity,” he said. To him, that meant that there would be no shortage of work in the future.

Indeed, he’s had at least two job offers since his graduation Feb. 6 from Orleans. Heaccepted the one from EF Precision Group in Willow Grove.

“I’m learning something new every day,” Kim said, who started his job on March 7. He has already been given more responsibility, inspecting the work of his fellow electricians.

The company, which has a long relationship with Orleans, is a contract manufacturer offering design engineering and turnkey electromechanical assemblies to meet individual requirements.

Kim earns $15 an hour and often works at least eight hours a week overtime – enough, he said, to help him pay down the $4,400 debt from Orleans — far less, he thinks, than he would have accrued attending college. In the future, he hopes to work as an electrician building homes.

“If you are pressured to go to college, find something that you like to do in life, that will make you want to get up in the morning,” Kim said. “If college is not the way, then maybe trade school will be the way.”

As far as his family is concerned, it’s already paying off. Kim changed the lighting system in his family’s kitchen and is rewiring the basement so he can set up his own quarters downstairs.

It’s as if he is completing the elaborate structures that he built as a child with Lego blocks when he wasn’t shooting down the enemy in video games.

And it’s a good thing that he has passed the Lego-building phase, because, he says: “My parents threw them out.”