Students set sights on skilled trades
The pandemic may be driving increased interest in technical education
After losing his job during the pandemic and mowing lawns to make money, Joel Zelaya knew he wanted more education but not another student loan. So at age 39, he took a community college course on facility maintenance, learning the basics of HVAC repair, plumbing, carpentry, and electrical skills. He completed the course in November 2021, and by the first week of December, he had landed a job—and a significant pay raise—as an apartment facility maintenance technician in Kernersville, N.C.
The post-pandemic economic landscape may include increased interest in technical education and skilled trades. Though experts note federal data on the field is limited, many technical education programs and colleges are reporting higher enrollment even while class numbers at four-year schools are down.
Students pursuing postsecondary technical education typically receive certificates or associate degrees in applied science upon completing a program in fields ranging from robotics to healthcare to welding to plasterboard.
More people are seeing the value of technical education, especially during the interruptions of a pandemic, according to Alisha Hyslop, senior director of public policy for the Association for Career and Technical Education. “It has become very apparent, the types of jobs that are essential to keeping our country running,” Hyslop said, giving trucking as an example. “How we get goods from one place to another in our country has been under the spotlight in the last two years like never before.” She also noted, though, that the field has still suffered from the pandemic since it’s harder to move trade classes online.
Interest in technical education has grown consistently for about 20 years, said Timothy Lawrence, executive director emeritus of SkillsUSA and now a consultant with the National Center for Construction Education and Research. He cited television shows about home renovation, cooking, glassmaking, and other careers for changing younger viewers’ perceptions of skilled trades. “They’re actually seeing what that occupation looks like,” Lawrence said. “It’s sort of gained a little bit of celebrity status.”
One of those shows is Dirty Jobs, hosted by Mike Rowe, who founded the mikeroweWORKS Foundation in 2008. The foundation awards scholarships to students going into technical education, requiring prospective recipients to sign a 12-statement pledge affirming the values of gratitude, hard work, responsibility, and avoiding debt. So far, the foundation has awarded nearly $6 million to technical education students.
Ben Brock enrolled at North Central Kansas Technical College for dual credit courses during his senior year of high school. Kansas law allows the state to reimburse tuition for high-school students taking postsecondary courses in career and technical education. He started classes in fall 2017 and graduated in spring 2019 with an associate degree in applied science, focusing on agricultural equipment technology. He turned 19 years old the month before graduation.
Several of Brock’s classmates went on to work at equipment dealerships. Another started his own mobile agricultural repair business. Brock works on the family farm where he grew up: “Being able to know how engines work and things like that is really nice on the farm.”
Some teachers and school officials are finding ways to integrate their Christian faith with technical education.
Janice Gilliam, vice president of the Crown School of Trades and Technology at Crown College, a Christian college in St. Bonifacius, Minn., said that in the fall 2015 semester 13 students participated in the school’s inaugural auto diesel program. Since then, the school has added cosmetology, HVAC, welding, and building construction technology programs. Enrollment has typically grown 3-5 percent annually, though numbers “held steady” during the 2020-2021 school year, she said. About 100 students currently attend the classes, which include 19 credits of Bible courses.
Casey Christopher taught music at a Christian college for years before deciding he wanted to help students learn the trades. In November, he registered Working Faith Institute as a business in Nampa, Idaho. The program is not yet accredited but is working to match prospective students with mentors willing to pass on their knowledge of their field in an apprenticeship model. The school provides three classes in entrepreneurship and economics, workplace success, and Christian worldview. The school’s inaugural two students are studying cabinetry and tile installation. “We wanted to go back to the Reformational understanding of the value of good work,” he said. “We wanted to restore the dignity of the trades, especially in the Christian community.”
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