Industries urge increased focus on career training
A couple students at Two Harbors High School slide a board through a planer to shave it down just a little in Kyle Chalupsky's cabinet making class. Just across the way in Mike Fitzpatrick's classroom, another pair of students are preparing to use the welder for their own project and up at William Kelley High School in Silver Bay students in Chris Belanger's class are working to design a pulley for the school's robotics team.
These classes are relatively popular with the students, but they are becoming increasingly important to local businesses and manufacturing plants in the region. During the Arrowhead Manufacturers and Fabricators Association (AMFA) meeting at Two Harbors a couple weeks ago, the group briefly went over a range of topics concerning the organization, but the group focused almost exclusively on the opportunities for students to either become certified with a valuable trade skill or be able to start working toward a two-year associate's degree while they are still in high school.
AMFA member businesses, and businesses all over Minnesota, are in a hiring crunch. They have plenty of jobs but there aren't enough young people qualified to complete the tasks the jobs entail. The population of Minnesota, and the nation as a whole, is aging rapidly and the northeastern part of the state is feeling the pinch more than others. In Lake County alone, more than 60 percent of the population will be 60 or older by the year 2030. That means more retirees from skilled union trades are leaving the workforce than there are people qualified to step in and fill those positions. AMFA hopes to help build its talent pool by increasing the access to local Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs and programs that can get students credit at local technical schools like Lake Superior College, Mesabi Range College or Itasca Community College.
CTE grew out of the old shop and home economics classes that dominated high school career education from the 1950 through the 1980s, but the program needed to expand beyond its original scope since trends indicated more people were not going to have just one vocation for their entire professional life, according to Brad Vieths, vocational program coordinator for Duluth Public Schools and the secondary coordinator for the Carl Perkins Consortium at LSC that works with schools up and down the North Shore.
"In our realm, long before I got here, that was the push, the job of the school isn't to build little mini-welders and little mini-widget pullers," he said. "It was meant to give students that are looking at going into the workforce, the broadest range of technical skills that we can to make them marketable."
Over the last two decades, school districts around northeastern Minnesota have worked to offer classes to help kids become certified as a welder, pipe fitter or machinists or even get a leg up on a two-year degree. Programs like the Carl Perkins Consortium at LSC and the Applied Learning Institute have partnered with schools in the area to help students get certified while still in high school or get started on a two-year degree. ALI started more than 10 years ago in response to a call from area industries to renew technical education in high schools and has helped create professional quality environments in both high schools and technical college labs to do just that.
"We've been able to over the last dozen years or so invest upwards of $10 million back into our industrial arts programs at our local high schools so that students are having an opportunity to train on state of the art equipment with state of the art curricula," ALI coordinator Roy Smith said. "We've invested in the technical labs at or five community and technical colleges in the region so that the students have the opportunity to matriculate on to really world class programs that prepare them for one of a couple of things."
Belanger's industrial arts program allows students to articulate several classes with LSC, meaning he works with instructors at the school to ensure his courses meet the standards at LSC. Students taking full advantage of the courses Belanger offers can start a two-year program at LSC with nearly a full semester of credit, significantly reducing the time spent in and the price tag of the program. The biggest issue with articulation is the credit is only good at the cooperating school and will not transfer to a different institution.
Chalupsky offers cabinetry and construction classes and works with MRC to get students in the program actual college credit, similar to the College in the Schools program, for his offerings. Instead of only getting credit with the cooperating school, students who successfully complete these classes will get a transcript that can transfer to a number of different schools or programs.
Both Chalupsky and Belanger said many, if not most, of their students will move on to a two-year program. The classes are popular with students and, Chalupsky said, are changing the mindset of parents and students who think a bachelor's degree is the only way to survive in the modern world.
"We really push that here, we tell them you don't have to have a four year degree to be successful," Chalupsky said.
Another obstacle for kids taking classes are core requirements from the state, since many CTE classes don't seem to match up very well on the surface. However, particularly in math and science, many of the standards can be met and smaller districts like Lake Superior School District are more flexible and better equipped to demonstrate how CTE courses meet state standards unlike larger districts with more standardized curriculums, Vieths said.
Industries have also made things tougher on schools like LSC, which has a world class machinist program, by coming in and hiring students and then those students don't finish the program.
"(LSC) does phenomenal work with machinists, but they can't graduate them because industry will come in and offer them money and then the kids leave before they graduate. That's a part of the industry, there's such a shortage, that those kids are like 'I can go make $40,000 to $60,000 and not have to go to class,'" Vieths said. "Long term, though, if the economy goes bad, you're not going to have that paper trail to go with your with skilled trades, especially on the post-secondary end."
Along with changing attitudes of students and industries toward CTE, parents also need to be educated about the potential careers in the skilled trades. For decades many parents were taught the only way for their child to go on to a successful career was to pursue a four-year degree and it's just not the case any more, according to Fitzpatrick.
"The biggest thing that needs to happen is educating the parents as to what the new jobs are," he said. "When you look at the aging workforce, there are a lot of opportunities that weren't there 10 years ago."