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Tech Ed Comeback?

Deb Miller, executive director of KRESA’s EFE program.
With not enough workers for certain jobs, it might be time to revisit technical education

Want a good job? Go to college.

Many young people have heard that advice. But, more and more, folks are saying, “What a minute. That’s not the only option.”

“Trades are the fastest-growing careers in Michigan and in the nation,” says James Taylor, Kalamazoo Valley Community College’s dean of health and sciences. “Students don’t need a four-year degree to pursue these occupations. However, industrial trades are not enticing because of bad perceptions about the work, the facilities and the wages. Parents who have these perceptions sometimes discourage their kids from such work.”

The bias against technical education occurs on all levels: from the classroom, where students are encouraged to be a part of a college-going culture, to the highest seats in government. President Obama has even set a goal of producing 8 million college degrees nationwide by 2020. This “college prep mindset” has pervaded government, high schools and homes and has influenced both the reputation and programming of vocational education.

Vocational education began in the 1950s, when non-college-bound students learned various trades. By 2007, technical education programs had all but disappeared. All nine school districts of Kalamazoo County used to teach auto shop; now only two schools offer it.

“Our society has dwelt upon the idea that the best jobs come from a four-year degree program, and everything else is lesser,” says Deb Miller, executive director of the Education for Employment Program (EFE) of the Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency (KRESA), which serves nine school districts in Kalamazoo County. “The perception is that if you steer students toward career and technical education, you are doing them a disservice.”

Miller says the push for more college degrees misses the big picture, and job statistics support her contention. Today, some 20 million Americans with bachelor’s, master’s and/or doctoral degrees are doing jobs that require less than the skill levels associated with a bachelor’s degree, says Richard K. Vedder, a distinguished professor of economics emeritus at Ohio University and senior fellow at The Independent Institute.

Moreover, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that more than 317,000 waiters and waitresses have college degrees, more than 8,000 of these are doctoral or professional degrees. More than 80,000 bartenders and 18,000 parking lot attendants have college degrees. On average, college graduates do earn more money than their lesser-educated peers, but, as the BLS statistics show, the demand for college graduates is not keeping up with the supply.

College loan debt — and the ability of students to pay that debt — also calls into question the value of a college education, causing worry for students, parents, colleges and politicians.

At the same time, however, millions of jobs requiring technical and trade skills go unfilled across the U.S. According to Gov. Rick Snyder’s office, there are at least 80,000 positions in Michigan listed on a state-sponsored jobs website that are going unfilled because of a lack of qualified candidates.

One solution being embraced is career and technical education (CTE) — sometimes called “vocational education,” or training in the skilled trades. In fact, CTE has become such a critical need that Snyder is promoting it as a means of rebuilding the state’s economy. He has set aside $26.6 million in the state school aid budget to support CTE programs and another $9.2 million to help equalize vocational education millage revenue among intermediate school districts, says Sara Wurfel, press secretary for the governor. (KRESA is such a district.)

Education for Employment

In Kalamazoo County, efforts to provide career and technical education have been in place since 1985. That’s when KRESA developed Education for Employment, which offers 36 programs to train future auto technicians, welders, machinists, electricians, framers, drywallers, HVAC specialists, plumbers and more.

More than 3,200 high school juniors and seniors participate in EFE programs at Kalamazoo County high schools. These programs may also involve cooperative education and work-based learning opportunities where students work 15 to 20 hours per week for a local business in their field of study.

Students and their parents are discovering that EFE programs not only help students work toward state and/or national certification in a trade but also provide good personal and professional skills known as “soft skills.” EFE also provides students with the educational background needed should they go on to two-year or four-year degrees in business, communications, engineering, health care, human services, agricultural science or natural science.

“We have a wonderful sharing system,” Miller says. “All nine districts embrace EFE, and we have many parents and students thanking us for these programs and the opportunities they provide. EFE is a big leap forward toward preparing students with good jobs that pay well and allow them to support their future families.”

What changed?

Career and technical education today is not what many of us remember as “shop class,” or vocational education, which had a certain stigma around it beginning in the 1970s. That stigma — the belief that college education was the only ticket to lifelong prosperity — did a number on technical education. And the Michigan Merit Curriculum (MMC) that former Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed into law in 2006 didn’t help.

MMC has the most ambitious core graduation requirements in the nation, according to a report by the University of Michigan Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. It requires that all students take four English courses, four mathematics courses, three science courses, three social studies courses, one visual/performing arts course, one physical education course, one “online experience” and two world language courses. That adds up to 19 courses required for high school graduation.

Before implementation of MMC, 80 percent of the area’s high school students could take at least one EFE course, Miller says. That percentage dropped to about 30 percent because students don’t have enough time in the day to complete all their academic requirements and EFE too. Moreover, EFE is an elective program that competes with other electives like art, band, music and athletics.

Last June, Gov. Snyder tried to protect the integrity of CTE by signing two bills into law. One made the skilled trades more accessible to students, while the other allowed students to count certain mathematics and science skills they learned in CTE toward their MMC requirements.

“We do things in extremes,” Miller says. “We should have high expectations for our students in subject areas, but is this realistic for every single student in every single course? For one thing, MMC eliminates mechanical geniuses and gifted IT students who may not do well in English.”

While Miller and other CTE advocates are unhappy with the MMC requirements, the State Board of Education and Wendy Zdeb-Roper, executive director of the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals (MASSP), maintain that a rigorous curriculum with MMC requirements is the best way to prepare future college students and CTE students for careers in today’s society.

CTE got a little boost in 2006, though, when the U.S. Congress passed the Perkins Funding Mandate, requiring all CTE programs to be certified and lead to “articulated credit” at a two- or four-year degree program. This requirement lets students save a lot of time and money should they decide to go on to college. A provision of the mandate also calls for “dual enrollment programs,” so students can explore future careers and earn college credit while still in high school.

Comstock High School’s “dual enrollment” program, the College and Career Academy, “was born of a conversation about what to do for students,” Principal Josh Cunningham says.

CCA students learn about various careers from professionals in those fields. They learn training and education requirements, expected wages, hours and benefits and what a day on the job is like. They visit college campuses and receive academic counseling to help them chart an Educational Development Plan.

“We’d like the students to figure out for themselves what they want to do and then to offer them our support, not just academic credit,” Cunningham says.

‘Shop class’ has evolved

Despite a long hiatus and lingering negative perceptions, CTE is gaining steam all over the country as technical and trade jobs go unfilled. But the world of manufacturing and trades has changed and so, too, has “shop class.”

“The perception is that ‘auto shop’ trained auto mechanics, where the work was dirty and didn’t pay much as a career,” says Matt Basse, automotive technology teacher at Comstock High School. “Today we are training automotive technicians, where the work is in a clean and computerized environment, full of electronics and much like the work of an engineer. Starting pay is $35,000 and can go to $50,000, with dealerships paying $80,000 to $100,000, mostly because they can’t find enough people to do the work.”

Students in Basse’s program must be able to handle mathematics, physics, chemistry, reading and writing. A lot of people don’t know that, Basse says. They also don’t know that students often do better at these subjects because classes like automotive technology allow them to see how the principles relate to their work.

Once his students graduate from high school, they can apply for certification as auto technicians by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence. Among the auto colleges offering certification are Lincoln Technical Institute, KVCC, Ferris State and Universal Technical Institute.

“Kids are attracted to automotive because they think cars are cool,” Basse says. “It’s only later that they learn about the incredible opportunities available to them. Enrollment is high and there is a waiting list.”

Matt Wesaw, 18, is a Comstock High senior studying automotive technology and planning to enroll in the University of Northwestern Ohio’s automotive diesel program. “I like everything about automotive — the complexity, the ingenuity behind it all,” he says. “It’s a ‘mechanical art’ to me, and I’m here to learn as much as I can learn so that I can do as much as I can do.”

One of the few girls in the automotive technology program, Mirsaydez Watson, 17, has been around cars all her life because her father is a mechanic. She wants to join the U.S. Marines so that she can serve her country, travel and learn how to work on any vehicle she encounters.

Another senior, Steve Beebe, 17, says that automotive technology is a place to go every day to do something he loves. “It gave me something to work for and to know that the harder I work, the farther I can go,” he says. “The more I learn, the more I want to learn.”

Basse says of his students who have completed the program, “They’re out there turning into grown-ups and making a great living with a house and a family. What I teach them here is turning out to be a life.”

Machining and manufacturing

Computerized manufacturing is another wide-open career opportunity with more jobs available than skilled workers to fill them. Machinists can earn $70,000 to $90,000 per year, with opportunities for a lot of overtime because companies are usually short-staffed. Machining involves making finished products with metals, alloys, plastics or wood as well as programming and running the equipment that designs the parts.

Students in EFE’s computerized manufacturing program at Vicksburg High School learn how to use manual equipment as well as CNC (computerized numerically controlled), CAM (computer-aided machining) and Master CAM software.

The program’s instructor, Greg Mills, a tool and die mold maker and an engineer, has relationships with Stryker Corp., Flo-Serve, Humphrey Products, Eimo Americas, Kraft Precision and other companies, where he finds internships for students. He also serves on KRESA’s EFE manufacturing advisory committee.

“Companies need quality employees, especially since the need for machinists is so great,” Mills says. “For example, Stryker Corp. could use at least 20 machinists right now.”

Business and industry are so desperate for skilled industrial workers that high school students are getting paid for internships and co-operative work arrangements. Many employers will even finance students’ college tuition to keep them as employees.

Machining requires a hands-on mechanical aptitude, says computerized manufacturing instructor Shawn Kolhoff, a para-educator at the Allegan County Area Career and Educational Technical Center (ACATEC).

“It’s very creative work that is needed in a variety of fields like aerospace, automotive, consumer products, firearms, medical, military,” Kolhoff says. “Somewhere a machinist has made it, whether it is pots, pans or knives.”

Welding is another skill attracting more attention lately. The American Welding Society estimates a need for 500,000 welders by 2018. Training isn’t cheap, which is why companies help in the recruitment of welders by providing materials that ACATEC can’t afford.

“Employers are standing in line waiting for our students,” says Rich Currie, a welder who has been with ACATEC since 1988, “and we train students to fit their needs because most shop workers have white hair. To be 17 or 18 years old is a perfect time to get into the skilled trades.”

Under a co-operative arrangement, companies typically pay students $10.50 to $11 per hour. After certification, apprentices’ wages go up to $17 per hour. After five years, a worker can earn $40 per hour plus benefits as a journeyman.

“Welding is not an exportable job, so there’s job security in it,” Currie says.

‘Soft skills’

All CTE programs teach students “soft skills” like how to write a resume, look for work, assert leadership, communicate with co-workers, show responsibility and arrive to work on time. However, no program focuses on soft skills the way the Law Enforcement Program does. Soft skills account for about 95 percent of its curriculum.

Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety Officer Jeff Crouse says the program emphasizes soft skills because the nature of the work is with the public. “Society and the professional world hold officers to a much higher moral and ethical standard,” Crouse says. “The students are taught early on to be responsible for themselves and the decisions they make, so they can continue to develop the necessary skills to not only be able to take care of themselves, but also others.”

Housed at Comstock High School, the Law Enforcement Program takes two years to complete, and nine credit hours will transfer to KVCC. Students in this highly competitive, intensive program must maintain a 3.5 GPA, have good attendance, wear a uniform to school and focus on the task at hand.

The program features physical training, service projects and social consciousness-raising. Students also learn how to handle emergency situations, including basic life support skills such as doing CPR, opening airways and using an automated external defibrillator. They participate in crime lab and bomb squad simulations and “situational awareness” training to learn to notice what’s going on around them. They practice making decisions in stressful situations through scenarios and role playing.

During the second year of the program, students are placed in internships with organizations including the Kalamazoo County Prosecutor’s Office, the Michigan State Police, Michigan’s Departments of Natural Resources and Corrections, the Vicksburg Police Department, and the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety.

Student Danny Alvarez, 18, says he enjoys the challenging curriculum, especially the physical training, and that the life skills he’s learning are not available in academic classes. Alvarez plans to go to KVCC and then to Grand Valley State or WMU for a degree in criminal justice and then attend the Police Academy at KVCC.

Leah Savage, 17, says, “This class has helped me with my other classes because it teaches me to be independent, and it’s moving me toward the real world. We’ve grown. We represent this school and this class.” Savage plans to attend North Park University in Chicago and, after graduation, join the ROTC National Guard and attend the KVCC Police Academy.

Cooperative work programs and internships

While college-prep courses provide a strong background in the liberal arts and sciences, they do not always tap students’ passions or teach career skills. That’s how CTE students have an advantage. They learn the principles and practices of a trade before they invest time and money into certification or post-secondary education.

Vicksburg High senior Zack Glascock, 18, is currently on a co-op assignment with Humphrey Products, working from 6-9 a.m. every day learning what machinists and engineers do. He wanted to be an architect, but through EFE he discovered engineering. He plans to go to WMU, where his tuition will be paid by Humphrey Products.

“My goal is to design parts that help people in everyday life,” Glascock says. “I want to build parts that no one else has designed for someone’s home or for equipment for someone who is disabled.”

These EFE programs, internships and cooperative work opportunities often help students learn as much about what they don’t want to do as what they want to do.

John Ferraro, 18, a Comstock High School senior, took automotive technology and found that, while he is good at it, he doesn’t want a career in it. He contends, however, that none of what he’s learned is wasted. He knows what to do if his car breaks down and has learned to be a problem solver.

“The class makes you have a different perspective,” Ferraro says. “There’s always something else to fix — and to fix it better. It’s a great class to take.”

Motivation to succeed

For many students, though, EFE is not only a prelude to a future career, but can provide the impetus for them to complete their high school education. Basse says students who take his automotive classes often acquire a reason to focus more on academics because they see how it applies to the work they want to do.

“When they find something they’re good at, they suddenly become good at other things,” he says. “Their grades go up, and they graduate. They come away from high school with skills that give them a path to careers so that they can be more than oil and tire changers.”

Counselor Regan Tubbs has seen similar changes in students. “I love working here at Allegan County Area Technical and Education Center,” Tubbs says. “It is an option for students who choose to be here. The programs feature cool hands-on learning, and those who struggle with school can succeed here and make plans for a full life after high school.”

Olga Bonfiglio

There was no better writer to take on our story about the economic redevelopment of the Northside than Olga. She has taught urban development at Kalamazoo College for several years and was the host of Public Voice, a Community Access Center show interviewing local urban redevelopment leaders. She has previously written for the Huffington Post, U.S. Catholic, Planning (the trade journal for urban planners) and the Kalamazoo Gazette.

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