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RiverWorks Discovery Program opens doors for Alton students

October 19, 2023   Alton Telegraph

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ALTON — This has always been a river town, and that means jobs, ranging from deckhands that can be hired out of high school to college graduates.


At “Who Works the Rivers,” a program by RiverWorks Discovery, an outreach of the National Mississippi Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque, Iowa, area high school students got a chance to experience some of the job possibilities first-hand, as well as take a tour of the Mel Price Lock and Dam in Alton.


Approximately 100 Alton High School students, mostly juniors and seniors, participated in the program, held Wednesday at the National Great Rivers Museum in Alton. The remaining students came from St. Louis high schools.


“The river in our community has so many high-paying, very skilled jobs,” said Joe Michalski, a co-op teacher at AHS and group sponsor. “It gives them the opportunity to look beyond minimum-wage jobs.”


'Well-rounded view'

This is the second year for AHS students to participate. Last year approximately 60 students attended; this year it increased to more than 100.


“I believe that all students need to be exposed to as many different career fields and options as possible,” Michalski said. “I’m glad our school district not only values college, but trade school and other jobs to give them a well-rounded view of what’s out there.”


In addition to dam tours, there were multiple stations where representatives of different types of employment talked about what they do.


Those ranged from biologists talking about mussels found in the river to lock and dam maintenance people showing off some of the specialized tools they use.


Ryan Spurgeon, a training mate for Osage Marine in St. Louis, gave an overview of the barge industry, showing student how to properly lift some of the large tools and materials they use.


His job is teaching new hires, so he is used to it.


“Showing them how to properly lift the equipment that we use,” he said. “I am teaching them what the cargo is we move on a daily basis, how far south it goes, how far north it goes.”


'Great industry to be in'

Safety is the most important thing, so as students worked their way to Spurgeon's station he was reminding them that the materials he has are heavy, and they need to lift properly to avoid injury.


“It takes time,” he said of learning the proper way to do things on a boat.


Spurgeon said events like these are important.


“It helps our future industry,” he said. “With the youth they get a hands-on experience.”


He noted that a deckhand can be hired right out of high school.


“We’re always looking to hire new people,” he said. “We like to hire them young so we can train them up and hopefully they can be a pilot someday. It’s a great industry to be in.”


Variety of jobs

AHS senior Von Scott said he wanted “to spend the time out here instead of school” and “feel the fresh air,” but it was also a chance to look over career opportunities.


Scott said he has been interested in law enforcement but did not realize how many jobs there are on the river.


Errin Howard, executive director of RiverWorks Discovery, said there is a “huge” variety of jobs.


“We have trades you can go into after a couple of years such as welding, but we also have jobs you can come into right out of high school,” she said.


“Many of these careers, people can start out at an entry-level position, work their way up without having to go to college and having that debt behind you,” she added, noting a deckhand just out of high school can start at about $40,000 and could become a riverboat pilot and make more than $100,000 per year in a few years.


Howard said nationwide there are about 33,000 mariners, actual towboat workers, while the industry supports more than one-half million jobs.


Tourism grows

Part of that employment is the emerging river tourism industry.


Alton has seen a great deal of river cruises, meaning jobs ranging from entertainers to cooks and housekeepers.


Howard also said they emphasize the importance of the Mississippi River.


“We do talk to the kids about where they are on the map and why that’s important to the industry,” she said.


Blake Martin, a freshman at AHS, said the program was “really cool.”


He was especially interested in woodworking.


“I love playing with tools,” he said.


His only issue was with the air horns they used to signal changes in stations.


“They kept blowing air horns and scaring the crap out of me,” he said.


For more information about RiverWorks Discovery and Who Works the Rivers, visit