Editor’s note: This is the second in a series about technical training for a new workforce.
By CRISTINA JANNEY
At one time, students in high school were told the passport to prosperity led through college and was stamped with a four-year degree.
Although for certain students this is still going to be the case, the Kansas Department of Education has begun to acknowledge in its new accreditation process four-year degrees are not the answer for all students.
“They want to make sure we are tending to the needs of the students from the point of not just focusing on four-year college or four-year university degrees,” Hays USD 489 Superintendent John Thissen said. “They definitely want to focus on trying to prep children to work on HVAC systems, to be plumbers, to end up being an electrician, to be a welder.
“All of these are important jobs, and they are needed and they pay quite well too. We have a history in our school of not paying as much attention to prepping students for those areas.”
The new push is to create individual plans of study that highlight students’ strengths and allow them to explore career opportunities. This is includes many current and emerging careers that will require some sort of post-secondary trade education or certification. The students take surveys through the Career Cruising program that help them refine career choices.
Thissen said the assumption used to be “smart kids” all went to college. That now is not necessarily the case.
“It is crazy to think we would expect our kids to graduate from high school, go to a university, spend four years there and then realize that what I really want to do is be an electrician. That is ludicrous. It doesn’t make sense,” Thissen said. “We should do a better job of prepping the kids through public schools in K-12 that at least they have a good enough direction that they know what they want to do and they are not wasting their own time and their money.”
KSDE supports 16 career pathways, which are careers the State of Kansas deems as high-tech, high-demand and high-wage, said Chris Dinkel, HHS industrial technology teacher.
Some of these include construction trades; metals and manufacturing; agriculture; business; consumer science; and radio/TV. Many of the pathways require a two-year degree or certificate and then students can go straight to work.
The demand for skilled workers is increasing, and so the education model needs to change with it, according to Dinkel.
Since the turn of the century, about 20 percent of the population were professionals, Dinkel said. They have at least a four-year degree and perhaps higher. These are doctors, lawyers, accountants, therapists, etc. That percentage has not changed per capita much in the last 80 years.
The majority of the remaining workers in the 1920s were unskilled. That has flipped in the last 30 years to a high percentage of skilled laborers.
“Kids coming out of school need to have some type of training, period,” Dinkel said.
Thissen said the KSDE is pushing districts to offer students paths to trade certifications while still in high school. This could be a welding, OSHA safety or Microsoft Office certification.
Thissen said students are responding to Career and Technology Education offerings at the high school. The district is considering changing its hiring to accommodate what are now oversized welding classes.
Dinkel, who has been a CTE teacher for almost 30 years, said this need for skilled workers has been recognized, but states, including Kansas, still have challenges in meeting the needs of industry.
Focus on core curriculum and four-year professional training is an important part of K-12 education and must be an academic focal point, he said. However, it’s as important educators recognize the academics and skills needed for those students choosing CTE paths, Dinkel said.
Students who are in CTE pathways might not need calculus, but they might need industry-relevant math and English.
CTE has become increasingly oriented on cooperative learning and project learning. A student learns skills and practices them by building something in metal shop or wood shop. Students take a project from beginning to end and fit their skill sets into that project. There is more focus on skill development than there used to be, Dinkel said.
Schools are also trying to build cross-disciplinary cooperation. Students in a drafting class develop plans for a metal project or part. They learn in metals class how to use those plans to program the CNC plasma cutter. They then use welding skills to assemble the pieces into a final product.
The math instructors are also seeking floor plans from building trades teachers to create real-life problems to use in their classes.
Thissen said the district continues to try to expand its hands-on experiences for students. Hays High students can gain on-air experience on a new HHS radio station that launched last school year. The district IT department is also in talks with the administration about involving students in helping other students or teachers solve technology issues.
In some pathways, students can work in their fields through summer jobs or internships. However, now legally you have to be at least 18 to even operate a drill on a construction site. However, Dinkel said even working entry-level, service job can show a future employer a young person has the soft skills they need to be successful in a trade job later.
Another important thread is providing parents with information about careers within CTE pathways and the opportunities they provide.
Starting wages for technical school graduates are now higher than those for four-year college graduates.
Dinkel said he sees his job as preparing students to have the ability to make a choice between going straight to work, going to a technical school or to a four-year college or higher.
The Career and Technical Education program or CTE has an advisory board made up of people who work in the pathways the high school offers.
They generally say they have three levels of employee. The first level is entry-level. An employee can read, write, do basic math, show up to work on time and has the ability to work with others.
The second level is an employee is someone with some training. They may have a skill, such as welding.
The third level is a person with formal training, certification or experience.
“What industry is telling us is that if I can get someone to show up on time, to be honest and be able to work cooperatively, many of them will say, ‘I will train the rest because I can’t even find that,’ ” Dinkel said. ” ‘I can’t even find someone to show up on time and put in an eight-hour day.’ ”
Thissen said he also hears from employers their need for soft skills among future workers.
“They are finding there are a lot of students that graduate high school who may be knowledgable, but are very much lacking in what we would almost say are common-sense issues,” Thissen said.
Thissen said teaching students these needed skills is almost a hidden curriculum across all classes. He gave the example of mock interviews that were being conducted at the high school by the English department. Students not only learn how to create a written resume, but the practical skills of how to dress and speak during an interview.
“We even see people who are coming in for jobs for the school, and they come in 10 minutes late for an interview. That is already not a good sign, and they may show up in shorts and a tank top—very inappropriate dress for an interview,” Thissen said.
Dinkel said he thought young people have high expectations.
“Young people want to come in and make 12 bucks an hour right off the bat,” he said. “That salary is just not going to be there. That’s not high, but if they can’t make $10 plus an hour, it is below them.”
Dinkel said educators continue to struggle to keep up with evolving industries they are training young people to enter after graduation. Recently the metal shop received a grant to purchase a computer numerical control plasma cutter. Dinkel said CNC is really the direction industry is headed, but Hays is behind other schools who have had the technology for years.
For most, HHS needs another CTE instructor. The school can’t offer robotics, code reading, CNC, or materials and processes, which includes plastics, because the school does not have the staff or the space to do so.
Wood shop classes have 20 to 25 students, which Dinkel said borders on dangerous.
The district sought to expand and remodel its CTE space as part of a recent failed bond election. Thissen said he would still like to see work down in this area of the high school to better use the space and expand the school’s class offerings.
Dinkel sad he thought more young people would stay in the Hays area if there were more high-tech, high-paying jobs. However, the most abundant jobs continue to be lower-paying service jobs.
“It is kind of like fighting Peter to pay Paul,” he said. “Service-related jobs are not going to provide the type of salary that people need to live in this area because the cost of living is pretty high. It is a nasty circle here, because if you bring high-tech jobs in, what are you going to need — more service-related jobs. So which pool are you pulling from?”