Shop is window of opportunities
Students find niche in tech and hands-on school programs
The old shop classes in Colorado schools that included drill bits, lumber and T-squares have morphed into a place where robotics, virtual reality and wind power are being taught.
More and more students are flocking to these courses during high school and after, lured by state-ofthe-art technology, low tuition and secure future job prospects.
After a drop from 2009 to 2012, enrollment in career and technical education courses has surged, with more than 125,000 high schoolers and 20,000 middle schoolers enrolling in 2015. In all, a record 181,000 Colorado students were enrolled in CTE courses, a national curriculum with seeds in vocational education courses.
Officials predict enrollment will continue to increase as more parents and guidance counselors see the value of a nontraditional route to get a college degree or professional certificate. And state lawmakers realize the need, allotting $500,000 in 2015 to help the programs by creating a “talent pipeline.”
These days, CTE courses span agriculture, skilled trades, business marketing, criminal justice, culinary arts, fashion design and Science, Technology, Energy and Math, or STEM.
“This is not your granddad’s vocational education,” said Sarah Heath, state director/assistant provost for CTE in the Colorado Community College System.
A lot of these students enter into a marketplace desperate for workers. As many as 16,000 advanced manufacturing jobs go unfilled each year and most require highly skilled workers, experts say.
To that end, 84 percent of high schoolers who finish CTE courses had jobs within a year, while 94 percent of all CTE finishers obtained a job, Heath said.
Starting salaries depend on the job, but high school graduates with a mechanical maintenance degree can start at $29,000 annually and go up to $83,000, CTE officials say.
Aims Community College instructor Mike Hanscome, who teaches automotive courses, says the school’s bulletin board is filled with helpwanted postings from body shops, general garages and dealerships.
“A lot of the time they call us and say, ‘Send us what you got,’ ”
This is not your granddad’s vocational education.” Sarah Heath, state director/assistant provost for CTE in the Colorado Community College System
CTE courses can land students in the workforce immediately or form the basis of a bachelor’s degree in a higher-earning career such as engineering, Heath said.
Post-secondary education “does not always mean a four-year degree but also understanding that CTE programs like business and pre-engineering can lead to fouryear degree programs,” Heath said. “It depends on the student’s goals and plans.”
Many CTE courses are concurrent, meaning high school students can earn college credits. Enrollment in these classes is at an all-time high after a roller coaster ride in the years after the Great Recession.
By last year, 38 percent of all enrolled students in Colorado secondary schools, or 125,182, took at least one CTE course, an all-time high, according to officials. Those numbers were up from 120,702 in 2013-14 and continue an upward trend in CTE enrollment after dipping to 112,427 in 2011-12.
Post-secondary enrollment was also up in 2014-15, with 34,829 students. Only 201213 boasted a higher enrollment, 34,893.
The most popular certificate programs for high school students are for nurses aides, welding, automotive technology and cosmetology, Heath said.
For pure value, it’s hard to beat many careerand technical-oriented courses, proponents of technical education say.
Students at Aims Community College, for instance, haven’t faced a tuition hike in six years. Those who live in the taxing district around the Greeley-based school pay $2,021 a year for 30 credit hours, Aims spokeswoman Laura Coale said.
Weld County, meanwhile, provides residents with up to $3,000 a year for four years to use toward education, Coale said.
By contrast, tuition for two semesters at the University of Colorado at Boulder for in-state residents pursuing an undergraduate degree in business is $31,745; for engineering, it’s $30,065.
Recent college graduates are also spending 18 percent of their current salaries on student loan payments, and 60 percent of graduates under the age of 35 now expect to be paying off student loans into their 40s, according to Citizens Bank.
Most of the credits earned in CTE courses can be transferred to other Colorado colleges and universities through agreements worked out with those institutions, Heath said.
Aims is part of the state’s 13-college community college system, which is at the forefront of CTE programming in Colorado. Aims, like the other schools, tries to meet the needs of the community by offering courses that can be useful in the job market upon graduation or help boost skills needed at a four-year institution, Aims president Leah Bornstein said.
“We embrace our role,” she said. “We pretty much offer everything for everybody.”
Aims provides other sweeteners for students. Once they finish the college’s automotive program, they get more than $7,000 worth of new tools to take with them.
“Our partnership with Snap-On tools is really exciting,” Bornstein said. “It’s really unique, but it’s another wonderful aspect of that program.”
The automotive program at Aims is ideal for 21-year-old Grant Kennedy, who mulled several career options while in high school.
“I thought about being a doctor or lawyer, but I always liked to tinker with cars,” he said. “So I decided to come to Aims and see what they offered in that area.”
Kennedy got his certificate in collision repair and is finishing work in his painting and refinishing certificate. He figures he will work in a garage for a while and then start his own body shop business.
“That’s something I couldn’t do working in an office, starting out on my own and doing what I like and seeing where it takes me,” Kennedy said.
Colorado is backing the CTE cause in several ways. Lawmakers in 2015 passed legislation to create a “talent pipeline” to quickly train and get students into highdemand industries. The legislature allocated nearly $500,000 to the state’s Department of Labor and Employment to help implement the program.
The bill’s co-sponsor, state Rep. Alec Garnett, said some students want a different career path not offered in a traditional classroom. Instead, they can use their technical skills to fill needed jobs without being burdened by huge college debt, Garnett said.
“Things are different now,” he said. “Students want a menu of options and when they step out of the post-secondary world into those jobs that pay well and they can do the traditional things like raise a family and own a nice home.”
Colorado’s Teacher of the Year, meanwhile, is a former English teacher who now teaches game programming at William J. Palmer High School in Colorado Springs. Sean Wybrant said he switched to teaching CTE courses because they seemed more topical for his students.
“CTE is a natural fit for relevancy,” Wybrant said. “It is what’s going on in the industry right now and what’s going on in society around them.”
His students are developing educational games to teach younger kids about fractions and positive and negative numbers. Wybrant, who considers himself a writer, said literature certainly has a place in every curriculum. “But what we are doing here couldn’t happen in any other place,” he said.
Farther north, Mead Energy Academy is enjoying a 40 percent enrollment jump over 2015. There are 80 students — 15 percent of whom are seniors — in the class.
The academy started last year after partnering with Anadarko Petroleum Corporation for students interested in all facets of energy development. The students do hands-on examination of wind, solar, and oil and gas development.
That includes classroom experiments as well as tours of local oil and gas fields and solar and wind facilities.
“We wanted our kids exposed to a variety of experts in the industry,” said Jackie Kapushion, assistant superintendent for the St. Vrain Valley School District.
The course work, she said, will prepare students for college studies, technical education, certification programs and the workforce. “We want to make sure they don’t graduate from high school and wonder what’s next,” she said.
A class recently was analyzing low-level nuclear radiation measurements under the guidance of teacher Will Pratt.
“It’s definitely a lot more fun than sitting down in classroom and just taking notes,” said 17-year-old Jackson LeMasters, who wants to study marketing in college.
LeMasters hopes to use what he learns in the academy to understand the business side of energy development.
Classmate Kennolyn Peterson said she wants to study wind power: “I think I want to change the world a little bit.”
Zoe Pattiani, 18, gets a little hung up trying to remove a window from a car door panel in the garage at Aims Community College Automotive and Technology Center in Windsor. Joe Amon, The Denver Post
Jay Olson, a student at Mead High School, takes a class at Mead Energy Academy. The program is enjoying a 40 percent enrollment jump over 2015. There are 80 students — 15 percent of whom are seniors — in the class. The academy started last year after partnering with Anadarko Petroleum Corporation for students interested in all facets of energy development. The students do hands-on examination of wind, solar, and oil and gas development.
Four people help hobby student John Woodward, 70, foreground, load his 1935 Austin 7 onto a trailer in the garage at Aims Community Colleger in Windsor on Dec. 6. Joe Amon, The Denver Post