Career tech becomes increasingly important as funding shrinks

Alternative to college track is best choice for some students

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MONTICELLO — At a time when college graduates are struggling to find jobs, employers in vocational fields are struggling to find trained workers.

“Good machinists are in their mid- to late 50s,” said Kevin Boyens of Boyens Machining Inc. in Marion. “This group is nearing retirement. There aren’t enough trained individuals to take their place.”

Boyens teaches the metal fabrication career academy at the Jones Regional Education Center.“As a business owner, I know what I need them to know,” he said. “I know what they’re going to need.”

Relevance is a key factor of career technical education, or CTE. Instructors pride themselves on providing real life training for students, with the goal of helping them find their future, whether it’s a technical program or a university.

Increasingly, a college degree may not be a must. The 2010-11 edition of the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook indicates that in the next six years, 14 of the occupations that will experience the largest numerical growth are fulfilled by non-college types.

And pay scales are competitive. For example, the average starting salary for an engineer with a bachelor of science degree is $54,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The average starting salary for an engineer technician, with an associate degree in applied science, is $47,000.

“Seventeen million of the country’s workforce are in jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s degree — yet they have them,” said Kristy Black, director of the Jones Regional Education Center. “A student doesn’t always have to have a four-year degree to do what they love and make a good living. We try to stress here that there are multiple pathways; don’t ever let a door close.”

The Jones Regional Education Center opened in fall 2009, expanding Kirkwood Community College’s programs to eight rural school districts — Anamosa, Cascade/Western Dubuque, Central City, Maquoketa Valley, Midland, Monticello, Olin and Springville.

More than 500 students have enrolled in classes at the center, learning everything from computer networking to automotive technology.

“What we have here surpasses everything you have at my high school,” said North-Linn High School junior Matt Goode, 16, a student in the arts and science academy. “It’s hands-on. You aren’t just talking about the job, you actually do it. It’s kind of like a miniature company.”

Voters recently agreed to extend Kirkwood’s 15-year bond issue, which will fund three regional education centers in Johnson, Linn and Washington counties.

“There is a lot of talk these days about the need to boost college and career-readiness,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a speech at the spring CTE leadership meeting. “But the truth is that most people — and I include myself here — have focused primarily on college-readiness. Too often, career-readiness is an afterthought.”

Despite the benefits touted by educators and lawmakers alike, federal funding for CTE was cut by $138 million in fiscal 2011. Iowa lost $2 million, almost 10 percent of its total funding. President Barack Obama is proposing a 20 percent cut next year.

“It’s going to hamper the workforce pipeline,” said Kim Johnson, vice president of continuing education and training services at Kirkwood.

The reduction in high school CTE also could lead to an increase in dropouts.

“We feel CTE provides that opportunity for students to graduate high school,” said Dave Bunting, executive director of the Iowa Association for Career and Technical Education. “It’s all about how to inspire young people about their future.”

Cedar Rapids Superintendent Dave Benson mentioned Kirkwood’s career academies as a possible solution for the district’s increasing dropout rate.

If students decide a program isn’t something they want to pursue after high school, they do so without racking up debt. Kirkwood’s careers academies are free for high school students.

“The more experience you get, the better,” said Black, the Jones center director. “Sometimes it’s easier to figure out what you don’t want to do.”


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